Having completed his early morning ritual of meditation, asana and pranayama, Swami Somethingorother is ready to draw his practice to a close.
The sun, which has risen over the mountaintops, casting its dusty light across the ashram, has been saluted several times, and he has enacted various warriors, cats, dogs, and cows, as well as a number of undomesticated animals.
His heart has opened up like a lotus flower, and he has attained a state of almost bliss, which he will now seal into his consciousness by means of a closing meditation and long, deep savasana. As he lays himself down on his yoga mat, he becomes aware of a gentle vibration in the vicinity of his right shoulder.
Rolling himself over in its direction, Swami Somethingorother hoists himself up mindfully and reaches for his iphone: a text from Guru Important Dude, reminding him to mind his bandhas.
He lays himself down again, adopting the “Most Sacred Mobile Device” mudra (where the thumb is deployed on the keypad and the fingers gently cradle the device, in a supportive manner), and fires off a reply to Guru, expressing his most profound gratitude.
Being a practical man, he then quickly checks his facebook page for new likes (five), and skims his twitter feed for status updates from the other monks regarding their progress along the path to enlightenment. He notices he has three new emails, but decides to tackle those after his karma yoga practice, and before satsang.
Satisfied, he places his phone back down beside him, arranging his physical body into savasana, and drifts into his chidakasha, that space of inner consciousness, breathing in and breathing out, as he brings his attention to his sankalpa:
I am a kind and humble yogi, with a huge following on twitter.
What is wrong with this picture?
If your answer is nothing, or that Swami really ought to be focusing on his Instagram presence rather than twitter, you are beyond help, and I will ask you to kindly take yourself off my blog right now.
If, however, you are somewhat discomfited by the presence of Swami’s mobile phone, if you’re thinking that it doesn’t quite belong in this context, then perhaps we have something to talk about. And it’s all about context.
If Swami really should know better than to use his mobile phone in the ashram, why would you take yours to class?
Because you do. So many of you do.
I’m not perfect.
I’m very much attached to my iphone, to the point where I truly can’t imagine life without it. But after two years of working in a yoga centre that proclaims itself a mobile-free zone, my phone spends most of its time on silent, forgotten in a coat pocket or buried in my bag.
And I like it that way.
After two years of being the mobile phone police, gently reminding people, several times a day, to please not use their phones in the centre, and being told, more often than you’d think, that it’s just one phone call, that it’s urgent, or, quite simply, to fuck off (my lovely, very polite colleague was actually shown the middle finger mudra on one such occasion), I have become acutely aware of both context—a time and a place—and the sense of propriety and impropriety that’s attached to it.
I often find myself wanting to remind people that they cannot use their phones on the bus, but they can and I don’t. And although context can sometimes be an abstract concept, there is nothing abstract about a yoga studio. If there is a time and a place for everything, mobile phones clearly do not belong in a yoga class.
And yet, you see it every day.
New converts or long-time yogis, wholeheartedly and earnestly embracing the yoga practice that has changed their lives, arriving early or late or just on time for the class that they absolutely cannot miss, and going into the studio armed with their class tickets, their bottles of water and their mobile phones.
You see it in the studio, in that beautiful geometric arrangement of human bodies on yoga mats in neat rows along the clean white floor, and the harmony violently broken up by those dark rectangular intruders, placed at arm’s length between the mats, literally or metaphorically vibrating with pent-up messages.
You see it when these same people, who chant om and bring their hands into prayer and bow their heads and whisper Namaste, reach for their phones the second the class is officially over.
Context: let’s broaden it a little bit.
Yoga is much bigger than a class; it’s so much more than the asanas you practice. It’s actually this huge, ancient thing that none of us fully understand, and we have “Westernized” it and packed it up tightly and put it in a shiny package to make it more accessible and less terrifying.
And that’s fine, because we don’t live in an ashram, and there is no space for the full ancient hugeness of yoga in our little Western lives.
But we still need to remember what it is and where it came from, and that being part of it is a privilege. We are guests here, travelers at best, tourists at worst, and this place we’re visiting has its own set of rules. And, as guests, the least we can do is respect them. And leave our gadgets at the door.
Louise Grime (my most favourite teacher, and an excellent choice for reluctant yogis) never lets her students get away with bringing mobiles into class.
“You don’t necessarily need your phone right now,” she says, kindly but sternly, and then she makes a joke about perhaps being old fashioned.
But yoga is old fashioned.
Don’t be fooled by the shiny packaging, the glossy flyers or the state-of-the-art studios. Yoga is not some cool new thing we invented to make ourselves sound interesting and spiritual while toning our abs in preparation for the summer holidays; it isn’t an intellectual version of bums ‘n’ tums or an alternative to spin.
And, even describing it as a lifestyle choice doesn’t quite do it justice.
Lifestyle is a modern concept, and yoga predates it by thousands of years. Yoga is a way of living, which means, to put it very crudely, that you’ve got to take it in, and take it on and take it outside the studio.
Because it doesn’t matter how many sun salutations you do each morning before breakfast.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve mastered the Ashtanga Third Series, or if you can scratch the back of your neck with your toes whilst balanced on one hand.
It doesn’t matter if you meditate on your lunch break.
If you check your messages during class, you’re not practising yoga.
If you stroll out of the studio and leave your mat and props on the floor for someone else to put away, you’re not practising yoga.
If you walk out onto the street after class and flip out on the traffic warden issuing you a ticket because you parked illegally, you’re not practising yoga.
But let’s start small, and narrow it back down again: one class. On average, 75 minutes of your day. Leave your phone out of it.
Like Louise once pointed out, if you can’t put your phone away for an hour and fifteen minutes, you shouldn’t be in class at all.
You might as well take yourself back to the gym, where you can check your email while running on the treadmill, monitor your heart rate and update your Instagram account with sweaty, red-faced selfies, all at the same time.
And take Swami with you. I have a feeling he’d really enjoy a spin class.
Asana(s): the physical postures practiced in yoga
Pranayama: yogic techniques and exercises for regulating the breath
Ashram: a spiritual hermitage or monastery; the secluded residence of a religious community and its guru
Savasana: Corpse Pose; the relaxation pose generally adopted at the end of a yoga practice
Mudra: a symbolic hand gesture in Hinduism and Buddhism
Bandha: a Sanskrit word meaning lock, seal or bind; in yoga, an interior body “lock”
Karma yoga: the discipline of selfless action or selfless service
Satsang: a spiritual discourse or sacred gathering
Chidakasha: the psychic space in front of the closed eyes, just behind the forehead
Sankalpa: resolve, will, purpose or determination; setting an intention – crudely put, the yogic version of a New Year’s resolution, but expressed in the present tense
Namaste: literally, “I bow to you”; a respectful form of greeting, acknowledgment, welcome or farewell, with the palms pressed together in front of the heart and the head slightly bowed, with or without speaking the word
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of Author