June 21, 2012

Angel or A$$hole? ~ Jade Richardson

When push comes to shove at your yoga teacher training.

My friend Sally hates yoga.

It’s a malice that brewed up one Anusara class, anointed its gills with notes of rage and disbelief and pointed itself in a dangerous way at the teacher.

“It was the way he said ‘namaasteeyyy’.” She sneered it out, in American. I just Hate that!”


“I hate that word.” She said, stirring her latte prettily.

Sally is sceptical about yoga because of everyday life in Ubud where styled-up yogis do not always reflect well on Patanjali. I call it a spiritual laundromat. The more workshoppery I do here, the more crap comes out. I have observed the same in others and was so disheartened by the pouting and the posing when I first joined the tribe, that I seriously considered Zumba instead.

Four years on, I am grateful to the many teachers at the Yoga Barn who took me though my early lessons, calmly ignoring the misery, tears and b*%#chiness that oozed out of me. It could be because of them that I have any grace at all these days.

Under their watch I grew calmer, quieter, leaner and stronger and hoped, after a while, (about 200 hours, according to the Yoga Alliance) I would start to glow and shimmer and look good in hot pants.

It was after six years mountaineering and a year in the Amazon drinking the vine of the dead, (which is not a platform for ponsing about the world telling everybody you’re a shaman or on the brink of evolution: it’s supposed to feel like dying and that is supposed to, you know… snap you out of it) that I came to yoga.

I had watched 50 women struggle for transformation on the flanks of the world’s largest mountains, and I began to suspect there was no real need for such a big metaphor. I wanted to take less carbon-heavy journeys with more grounded people. I theorised that the six foot theatre of the yoga mat could provide as much room for change as a 5,895 m ascent of Kilimanjaro and invested hundreds of hours of every kind of yoga class in Ubud to find out.

Every yoga student gives this gift to their teacher: the willingness to follow their lead along a journey that can be painful, sad, frustrating and cathartic.

A student on the mat, like a climber on the summit, has the right to believe the leader knows the ropes, the crevasses, the signs of narcosis and how to make a delicious margarita out of a potato in those moments when you’re wondering why the hell you ever thought it was a good idea to do this.

Seven 6,000 m summits and one cup of ayahuasca will teach that those things that seem to hurt us may be the very ones that cause us to open, and let the life in—which turns out to be a very useful lesson on a 3 mm yoga mat.

And then again, things that hurt can be heralds of trouble to be clutched at the throat, snapped at the cervical vertebra and dashed against a rock ‘til their brains spill out. My Tantric Swami told me that. He said that was part of my spiritual lesson.

There are plenty of pretty kooky yoga ideas bubbling away on Bali and after my second year, I found myself confused in a wilderness of cranky tantric goddesses, chocoholics, huff’n’puff ‘experts and a smarmy new crew in town for a large slab of steamy, fresh, just-out-of-the-blender yoga dollars.

My faith in yoga teetered, I ate a lot of chocolate donuts… and then my relationship hit a reef and sunk to the abyss, I was diagnosed with cancer and lost a pregnancy. I saw the planets were converging and the summit was obscured: I decided to roll all my dice on the promise of yoga and booked into a teacher training in Bali.

I chose the most expensive one, making the biggest promises, with the flashiest website. I chose it because I had $10,000 to spend on either a radical hysterectomy and chemo, or on being radiant and alive with Yoga Alliance accreditation.

The training promised to change my life forever (but not necessarily in a good way—if you read the small print) and I was more ready than a ready thing to be ‘living my magnificence,’  like they said in the brochure. I was at break-open point –ready for the union, the self-knowledge and peace that yoga promises, and I was prepared to work hard for it. But I was in for a very different ride.

I was greeted at a retreat centre outside of Ubud by a man with a grin like a piano screaming, “HeeeeyYiiiii, Jiiieeeeaaaayyd. You’re in the right place,” in a way that confirms to any sensible person that they are most certainly not.

My housemates included a bulimic with a boob job, a feeder and a raw food addict. They were photographing each other in oiled bikinis with their legs behind their heads by the pool when I arrived. I wondered if they were yoga entrepreneurs, shooting a porn calendar based on the sacred asana, and saw Caroline Myss’ book Why People Don’t Heal on one of their beds.

I would be here a month, eating raw (a sure sign of being more highly evolved than others, according to the handbook), rising at 5 a.m. to meditate, then being stretched, flushed, brow-beaten and chanted into being more conscious and spiritually evolved, like our teachers said they were—in the brochure. We would drop our limiting ideas and reenter the world pure, raw, with enviable asses.

They estimated it would take 200 hours to get us fixed up as long we as promised to do everything they said: drink the nasty health juices, attend the endless lectures, acrobatic yoga, noisy meditations and the deconstruction of our old selves into ones that were in union with the divine with a certificate to show it.

We had to do the funky chicken if they told us to, say publicly what we didn’t like about each other, and turn up even if we had trodden on a deadly toad fish on our day trip. We had to understand that if we got sick or tired or constipated this would be known as ‘detoxing,’ and we would, under no circumstances, rest or complain.

We had to accept that if we had a problem with any of this, it meant we had a problem with life and should take a hardlookatourselves to see why we were ‘projecting’ our crap onto others. We were taught things about yoga we had to be able to repeat for the test and things about NLP in case our yoga teaching was crap and we had to resort to manipulation to keep those yoga dollars rollin’.

In his welcome speech the head teacher said, “If you think of me as an asshole, that’s when you know you’re doing the work.”

The room of 38 students, having laid down US$7,000, twittered and flashed their camel-toes. I wondered if this was the kind of thing a yoga teacher really ought to be saying. I was thinking of great leaders like Mandela, Ghandi and Shackleton—had they also used the asshole line to dare themselves into power and influence? I looked up asshole in Light on Yoga, the Gita and even in my anatomy text, and finding no comfort there, rang my insurance company.

They said if I was stupid enough to pay a guy to make me radiant, there was nothing they could do for me.

Day 7: Life in the villa—the bulimic vomits and cries, the feeder rustles contra-ban pizza, the addict gurgles green juices then crashes into self doubt when the chlorophyll wears off.

Day 10: The ‘awesome’ guy employs a ‘command and control’ strategy to ‘break’ us into the promised radiance. He picks on us, swears at us, sets up distressing psychological games and loses his temper. Is he trying to push us past limiting ideas? Am I ‘projecting’ after all?

I wonder whether stabbing him to death with a lemongrass skewer at the buffet is limiting, or illuminated.

Day 15: The good guy has yet to emerge from the rotting pupa of this bad guy. He is mean, he pushes us ‘til we cry and his handstands are banana-shaped. But, I am committed to making my spirituality better so I can be magnificent, like he says he is—in the brochure.

Day 18: The magnificent guy humiliates me for not reclining in a pose due to knee injuries from the Vinyasa sequence, setting off vivid flash-backs of the oncologist in Sydney who said I was ‘hysterical’ when I asked if I really had to have all my insides cut out after a dodgy pap-smear.

And then… an epiphany! I realise that there are in this world, whether through ignorance, or greed: assholes. Plain and simple. Ass-holery, while sometimes associated with people who can provoke us to great heights, is no guarantee.

“Don’t lose those vibrations,” smiled the Bhakti yoga teacher. She said we had to sing in Sanskrit because “it’s the only language on Earth with a spiritual resonance.” I wrote her a question with my eyes, “Err, isn’t that total horse sh*t?” She didn’t like me after that. Her Bhakti glow went quite frosty.

I didn’t like her either. She was over-laying one of the world’s ancient lineages with California pop-wisdom. And, isn’t all language a precious expression of the human heart, longing for relationship with all of life?

“There is nothing more dangerous, more evil in this world,” said Tripsichore teacher, Edward Clark, “than the smile of a yoga teacher.”

“Beware!” he leered. The stitching tightened around the fake boobs, nervous giggles shook the camel-toes. I liked him the best. I had been feeling like a pig at a fairy party all along.

We were asked to list why we were here. I wrote: “I have come for an activation in Manipura” (yes, yes, I know..). “I have come to let go of grief, be courageous about cancer, and change my whole direction in life (again).”

Day 22: I re-write my list: “I am here to get a yoga bum.” My other great breakthrough—a realistic expectation.

I converted my experience into a scientific study. Learn the ways of the asshole by observing him in his habitat, study his victims, forgive myself for wanting to be magnificent in the first place and admit that this guy was not radiant. He was a dickhead.

That day, a mentor asked a student: “How are you, Cordelia?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she smiled.

“Well, can’t you say brilliant then?” snapped the mentor.

Day 24: The asshole says: “If you’re thinking I’m just a Mother F*&%$*@$, realise that’s really how you feel about yourself.” The addict thinks we’re on a reality show, the fireflies are hidden cameras and the audience will vote off only the ones they like, to save them from the torture. Another says we’re in a psychiatric hospital, and have forgotten that we’re mad. And a girl from Wisconsin flits through the yoga room, singing, “Isn’t it all just, you know, like … awesome!?”


Jade Richardson. It was in the dark winter of 2008 that writer, mountaineer (www.girlsontop) and yoga teacher Jade Richardson was sent by weird forces from her quiet little Australian cottage into the wilds of the Amazon in search of something sensible to say. After four full years (and 1 month, exactly) of wrangling with side-winders and ferrets, lost causes and lame burros, missed connections, bedbugs, avalanches, hallucinogens, conjunctivitis, cancer scares, stinking yoga mats, nymphomaniacs and narcissists she reports for Elephant on her quest for a clear view through the holy smoke of the spirituality movement. Follow her blog at passionfruitcowgirl.wordpress.com.


Editor: Cassandra Smith

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