June 2, 2013

With Great Yoga Comes Great Responsibility. ~ Alex Hamby

In 1996, Marvel Comics, home of both Spider-Man and the Avengers, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Things looked grim for the iconic and colorful superheroes as they faced a threat far more serious than Doctors Octopus or Doom. Their combined powers seemed, for a time, unable to match the might of the Fearsome Bank!

In 2000, Bill Jemas became president of consumer products, publishing and new media and immediately enlisted popular comic book artist and creator Joe Quesada to be the company’s new editor-in-chief. Right away changes were made to both the company and the characters leaving long-time fans feeling alienated, offended and poorer for having spent more money on their favorite comics than they’d done in some time.

Despite still buying and reading X-Men and Hulk comics, they complained and protested the radical changes to their favorite heroes—changes designed specifically to make them accessible to a new and larger audience and thus save an iconic institution about to close its doors.

Before I lose your interest with too much geek-speak, let me connect this to the world of the spiritual, to the world of yoga.

I was there for the events I described above. I was both a comic book fan, comic book critic and owner of the comic book version of elephant journal, a website that came into existence because of what was going on with Marvel Comics at the time; but now, some thirteen years later, life has taken me far away from that world of spandex-clad demigods to the front of yoga classes around the Dallas area where I lead people of all shapes and sizes, beliefs and motivations, race, gender and orientation as they face their own super-villains (limiting beliefs) to accomplish feats of wonder (stilling the mind in savasana) in yoga classes.

Yet somehow, those voices resentful of change are here too. Only they’re not angry about Spider-Man’s web-shooters being changed from mechanical to organic (the difference between Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s portrayals), they’re angry about how yoga is being marketed and taught.

When I first stepped onto a yoga mat I was changed forever. I could compare it to the day I picked up my first issue of Wonder Woman at the age of five. I knew instantly I’d found something special; but, just like with comics, I wasn’t content to just stay on the periphery.

The teachers I’d encountered inspired me, despite never reciting invocations to Genesha or quoting the Bhagavad Gita, yet paralleling the same intentions. I wanted to know more, do more and be a part of the yoga world. I took classes, workshops, read books, took a training and started to make connections to the online yoga community.

This is where I started to realize something suspiciously familiar was present here amidst the self-described yogis of the West: criticism, complaint, and judgment.

I’ve seen some in the yoga community offer their opinions—always believing their intention pure, their position irrefutably correct—on everything. Tirelessly defending their stance on the use of music in a yoga class, which style of yoga is actually yoga, whether a class should be heated or not, all the way to declaring advertising yoga as a means to a firm butt is disrespectful and offensive. I’ve heard of teachers alienating people due to their size, age, orientation and even gender identification.

All of this before we get anywhere near what might be described as the spiritual elitism surrounding a teacher’s legitimacy based on their understanding, usage of and following of those ancient texts that the asana practice is linked to.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” ~ Uncle Ben Parker, Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962)

Comic book fans are purists by their nature. They resist change to their beloved heroes or their rich histories. Altering something too much from that which a fan believes to be sacred—and comic fans do believe some things in these fictional tales are, in fact, sacred—is a personal affront. For how dare anyone ever alter that specialness that is the reason they originally connected with the Fantastic Four or Captain America?

Some of these fans, those who are the most fervently loyal to their four-color legends, take to speaking very loudly against those who would alter what they believe should go unchanged.

Yet, most of these comic book heroes were created from the 30s to the 70s, and so much has changed in the world since. The same, I’d argue, is true of the 5,000 plus years since the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras were put to word, paper, parchment or whatever method it was that Patanjali used to pass along his wisdom.

The lens with which we look at the world has been altered by wars, terrorist attacks, media, fast food chains, SUVs, Michael Bay movies, equality movements, technology and social media.

We live our lives in a modern Western storm and as such will look to these sacred texts for answers very different than were sought when Patanjali first sat down to write; it is highly likely that what you believe yoga should be, how it should be taught and who should practice it are very different than what was originally intended anyway.

Much in the same way comic fans decide what it is that their stories should be, so too do yoga practitioners make assertions with yoga. We shouldn’t promote the physical benefits of yoga then turn around and look disapprovingly upon those who would use it solely for fitness—yet we do. We can’t speak of love and acceptance, yet stand guard at the red rope of yoga denying entrance to those who aren’t doing it our way—but we try.

We can’t hold so steadfast to our idea of yoga that we are inflexible, incapable of accepting that someone else might have another interpretation, because that is the opposite of its yoga’s meaning, is it not?

The awesome thing about comic books is that they are a form of art that blends writing and drawing to create fantasy and adventure. Through collaboration, new stories are conceived, and when matched with the imagination of a reader, something truly special is realized. This is why a medium fast-approaching its centennial and the modern-mythology that is the superhero has survived long enough to become one of the most popular movie genres in theaters. It is an evolutionary process that has seen new generations add their talents, ideas and inspiration to something some saw as sacred.

Each new writer, artist, colorist, letterer or editor joins this ongoing process to add their voice of devotion, love and respect to the creative choir of those who came before.

Ultimately, Bill Jemas and company saved Marvel Comics. They achieved this through properly assessing the intellectual properties they were charged with overseeing and brilliantly positioning them to become once-more vibrant and interesting. Marvel’s debts were paid in full and a company close to flat-lining was resuscitated and went on to thrive, transforming from a mere publishing company to a movie studio powerhouse.

All of this happened as comic book fanboys protested; yet few stood back up to acknowledge that it was the sometimes radical interpretations of the characters and stories they’d grown up loving that were, in fact, what allowed Iron Man and Thor to be here today for our enjoyment.

For us in the yoga community, we have got to stop this effort to close the doors to practitioners and teachers based on some notion that their bodies or ideals are as disrespectful to the practice of yoga as Marvel Comics’ 2003 decision to make a black Captain America .

It’s time to stop resisting new interpretations of sacred texts or preventing new ideas from being presented.

All of this, be it that you are telling someone their yoga practice “isn’t really yoga” or condemning someone else for wanting nothing more than a firmer, more youthful behind, doesn’t serve to create a better yoga for anyone—especially for the person passing judgment. We need to stop holding so steadfast to our idea of what yoga should be and allow it to be what it is!

“Be ye an island unto yourself.” ~ The Buddha

The reason you or I love yoga is not going to be the same reason someone else does. Each person, however, brings something of great value to all of what yoga was, is and will be. We are all collaborators in the process of not creating a new yoga, but finding different and deeper understandings of it. Yoga is going to take on myriad forms and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.

All we can do is take a road less traveled through the history of spirituality and accept that someone else’s yoga might just be a bit different; we can still celebrate that. No matter the path they are walking, their destination doesn’t look so dissimilar to our own.

Alex Hamby has been a lot of things in life: a former comic book publisher, writer, critic who now blogs on the subjects of life and yoga. He teaches power vinyasa in the Dallas area at a few very cool locations to some even cooler people. After years of living a lifestyle of bad food and too much television, he realized change in his life. He made a decision to live his life; through a series of strange events, this led him to the practice and teaching of yoga. Connect with him at http://www.alexhamby.com, on Facebook or on twitter.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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