August 7, 2012

The Shiny, Happy People Place Is Bullsh*t.

Let’s Have a Dream: Balancing Internal Experience with External Reality.

Act 1:

Once upon a time, I was in graduate school at an Ivy League University in New York, feeling exhausted, psychically battered, and devastatingly low on self-confidence.

Oh, First World problems

At that time, drowning in a sea of scholarly texts, Yoga Journal was the only thing that I really enjoyed reading. It was like manna for my soul, balm for my wounds. Here among the pages of this glossy, women talked about happiness and freedom; they had beautiful bodies and radiant smiles. They ate smoothies and superfoods, and got rid of their migraine headaches with a few yoga poses.

See? It’s simple!

Act II:

Six years later, I get the Yoga Journal magazine, thumb through it and wonder, who was that person I used to be? Now I see a degree of superficiality that makes me cringe, rampant cultural appropriation, white middle class lifestyles lauded as virtuous, and new age tendencies heralded as cool and hip.

I swiftly turn to Sally Kempton—a sage contributor who regularly dishes out real and practical advice, built on a platform of humility without all the new-fangled competition to be the most awesome. Thank you, Sally, for being an oasis!

Did I change? Did Yoga Journal change? Probably both. Which is both a tribute to yoga’s power to change a person, a critique of the modern yoga culture, and an interesting study in how one’s interior and exterior environs will sometimes dance in perfect harmony, and sometimes spar with swords.

This is not an article intended to critique Yoga Journal. No. Yoga Journal is merely a regular lodestar against which I can measure some shift in my life navigation, both internally and externally, and a star caught in the crosshairs of my analysis of what it takes to create good mental health.

Yes, good mental health. When your external and internal are out of balance, it can be troubling. And things that used to bring you into balance later might poison you. This is a truly important phenomenon of which to be aware.

I define good mental health (today) as the ability to see what is real, and not to indulge in fantasies of any kind—in short, to come into balance, or to find the middle path.

The process towards good mental health can be simple. When you’re feeling low, in a way that is not fleeting*, spend some time surrounded by good and happy things. That was me six years ago, and why YJ was so appealing—it made me feel good about myself (a white, middle class woman), and optimistic that there would be a brighter day on the other side of my graduate school nightmare. It balanced out my internal darkness.

Many people find this place very seductive—addictive even—and choose to stay in that shiny, happy people place. I wrote about this in my article 270 Degrees: Getting Stuck in Your Transformational Process.

But, as you start to feel better and your internal resources grow, you must learn to be able to withstand things that are darker, less optimistic. Why? Because if you don’t, you will reside in a place of glided, happy fantasy, and this is not balanced. It is merely the opposite of depression. It is still delusion.

My internal resources have grown immeasurably in the past six years, which is now why I believe that I am able to see some of the things that are truly troubling about modern American yoga—things which may or may not have been present six years ago. But far more important is my burgeoning internal resources built in part thanks to Yoga Journal, which also explains why I am now able to see the things that are most troubling about me and begin to contend with them in ways that are realistic and healthy, without diving into despair or denial.

The world is rife with suffering and strife, inequality and discrimination. Yoga gives us the tools to grow internal resources and the mental health to be able to handle these things and do something about them. If you are low on these resources, by all means, take care of yourself. But once you are healed enough, begin to look around, and heal the things that you see wounded in your world. The way to this is through realism, not by slathering everything with a heavy layer of Polyanna-ish optimism.

In summary, with regards to Yoga Journal and yoga as an American cultural force, here’s the reality of which I dream, an internal desire I long to see become an external reality.

Act III:

Twelve years after subscribing to Yoga Journal, I see that it has really followed the current and growth of its subscribers, as well as working to shape their interests. There’s a warm invitation to newer yogis—men, women, children, people of all sizes, shapes, colors and creeds. This thread runs through all issues, not just “special interest” features on these “fringe” groups. They have a service arm that places their publication, for free, into community centers and public health clinics around the country, and reports on the relationships that they are building with those organizations. They have a scholarship that sends one yogi a year to a teacher training of their choice, and an inspiring ongoing article about that person, their story, and their growth. There’s a monthly article on how yogis are working to change their communities. I’m inspired because I see the ways that yoga has grown beyond the mainstream in ways that encourage its perpetual, exponential growth. I see variety, and complexity, and an effort to communicate with everyone. Yoga Journal truly has evolved into the equivalent of the “Open Level” class. It’s a publication where many students can see the possibilities for who they can be. It makes me proud of what American yogis have accomplished.

Let’s create a balanced yoga counterculture. Will you join me?

*Some people suffer from prolonged depression, or chemical imbalance, not merely an extended dark night of the soul.  It’s important to learn to discern one from the other.  If you’re not sure, I suggest hiring a good therapist to help you figure out which it is.


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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