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What is Practice?

The length of my exploration of Yoga has precisely mirrored the length of the most important relationship of my life, that of my affair and then marriage to my (X)-husband. In those days of my late 20’s I was almost drowning in gifts and newly discovered riches: finally I had left Colorado, I had broken from the coked up party people upon whom I had stupidly wasted the previous few years, I was in love with a kind, generous man who was lonely and complicated and knew everything a human mind can know about soul music – and I found Practice.

Yoga is analogous in many ways to erotic love or hard drugs: many people can walk into a yoga class, roll out a mat, tolerate or mildly enjoy the class, and then leave it behind. Like a one night stand or quickly set aside experiment. For others, the memory of that “First Class” burns all throughout one’s life, and serves as an occasionally sorrowful, sometimes joyful reminder of what Life feels like when lived fully awake or open. My first love affair, with a beautiful boy from Athens, Georgia, was like that. My first line of coke was like that. And my first Yoga class was like that, but even more so: I was caught, but I knew not by what. Yoga, above all, is Mystery.

As I grow older, and Practice weaves itself in and out of my life, its presence shifting according to differing levels of chaos, depression, discipline, and traditional “householder” needs, I find my understanding of Practice and Yogic discipline changing, though not necessarily evolving. This is due in part to the choices I have made over these many years: instead of the life of a semi-renunciant, to which my nature is in many ways highly suited, I married. And moved back, profoundly against my own instincts, to Colorado. I had a child. And then another. And then a third. My partner never practiced, and indeed held a slightly contemptuous attitude toward Practice, and during the gorgeous years of tiny babies and worlds awakening around me, my own world became smaller as my marriage fell apart and the reality of my own self-created imprisonment became clearer to me.

Discipline faded, even as I grew stronger as a teacher of asana. Oddly, the more hesitant I am in my own faith, the more artful and thoughtful my instruction has become. I am a good teacher. A gifted teacher. And not a particularly good yogini.

Strange, the contradictions we hold within our hearts and hands.

Over the last couple of years, circumstances in the strange, sickeningly commercialized world of Western Yoga have further isolated me from Practice. I practice both Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is particularly fraught with minefields of ego, historical myth, astonishing moral and physical judgment, and a sense of cultish superiority. It is also a beautiful art, the most beautiful I have seen in the world of asana and pranayama. My relationship to Ashtanga Yoga usually looks like an internal Robert Motherwell of dark and white devotion mixed with rejection, often blended together within seconds of one another.

In the Mysore room (the traditional form of practice is thus named), I have experienced moments of true passage, in which the dull, limited “Rachel, age such and such, of this body in this time” fades to the background of illusion and ego, and in its place is…. the numinous, whatever state is beyond language, beyond the reach of human description.

I have also experienced the opposite of this state, which is of course to be expected but presents its challenges nonetheless. In any engagement with art, one runs into obstacles – teachers who are totally misguided assholes, interior struggles that prevent evolution, insecurity, self-doubt.

Lately, however, it is not the struggle with Practice I feel so much, but more an overarching, long-lens conflict about the Western interpretation of Yoga.

We are taught that Yoga belongs to no one. It is a spiritual practice. It is a physical practice. It is a practice one can approach from myriad needs and perspectives, from the desire to thin one’s thighs to the burning zeal (tapas) for Enlightenment and Awakening.

As a woman (yet another problem in the history of Ashtanga Yoga) who lives profoundly within the Western realms of aesthetics and analysis, but who is also strangely overcome by true expressions of faith, I wonder more and more if… the whole project isn’t an ignorant commercial experiment, doomed to failure from the start by conflicts inherent between both cultural norms and good old American greed.

In the next year or so, when my children are just a bit older, I intend to, finally, make my way to India. I hope some of my questions might be answered, or at least addressed in a manner that brings me out of my myopic tendency to lean heavily into the cynical and the impossible.

In the meantime… all I can do is observe what is here, in this country, in this city. And this is what I see:

there is very little Practice (whatever that is, right?).
There exists, instead, an Industry. We even call it such: the Wellness Industry. And it is growing at a blinding pace, more than 10% in the last two years alone.  Spas and crystals and workshops and retreats to (always stunning) far-flung places. Fashion, asana sequences that are TM’d with laughable monikers (Yoga with Goats, anyone?) and almost offensive branding: “Mindful Vinyasa,” or “our signature … ” fill in the blank.

I love Practice. Some of my teachers are the most brilliant people I’ve ever encountered, and they reflect an intensity of discipline and devotion that is a gift to observe. I am not spilling any secrets when I tell you that Manouso Manos has not missed a pranayama practice in all the decades and decades he has been learning Yoga. Does this mean he has scraped his way through all the kleshasovercome samskaras both personal and universal? I doubt it. But he is closer than the rest of us.

And the teacher from whom I have learned most, partly from example, partly from listening, reflects a transcendent beauty that is a combination of natural brilliance and steady practice. Many thousands of people have seen their lives changed by a mere lecture or two from Richard Freeman, and if this is not the Yoga of transmission and compassion I do not know what is; to me, and to many, Richard is Embodiment (an opinion which I imagine drives him mad, but that is another essay).

The end of my marriage, for reasons I do not yet understand, is also bringing about an end to Practice, or Practice as I have known it. There is a great, new and frightening scale of questioning I have never before known about the very essence of Yoga as it has been adopted in the Western world.

Here: I don’t know if I like it. To admit such a thing, after identifying so strongly as a teacher and yogini for so many years, should be terrifying. But it’s not. It’s interesting, and fresh. I feel an honesty coming over me that I have never really known before. And a fearlessness.

I cannot stand the modern industry. I find most teachers to be so ignorant as to be irresponsible at worst or just silly and cheesy at best. In the Ashtanga world, there is a Puritanical devotion to mechanics and the imitation of practice in Mysore, India. But things have changed in Mysore. No longer is one supposed to linger in tadaka mudra, and people argue constantly over the type of breath used in Utpluthih. And may the gods help a teacher who attempts to teach Ashtanga Yoga without being Authorized. But to be even more frank, a lot of Authorized teachers are terrible, and become Authorized because they have made the requisite trips, paid the necessary funds, to the Institute in Mysore. I know an authorized teacher who told me that he’s “not an alignment guy,” which is a bit like a ballet teacher saying he’s not that into music.

And these concerns address only, for me, the more surface questions of Practice, safety, authenticity. The greater and more subtle issue has to do with Interpretation, or the manner in which the West has morphed, altered, and adopted these practices that are thousands of years old, and were often only given to male Brahmans who spent their lives reciting and memorizing the Vedas, or engaging in debate over the dualism (or not) of Samkhya philosophy. This has about as much to do with the overly franchised Western studios as the making of Epoisses in Burgundy does with Velvetta.

And yet. When the seed is planted it is not quickly killed off, even by cynicism, even by witnessing how bastardized Practice has become. Perhaps it is true that the West, with its Cartesian DNA of an intellectualized “I” sense, and its cultural history of money, success, and greed, will never be able to adopt the ethos of authentic Practice. But this does not mean Practice does not exist. Perhaps the turning away from the culture of Practice, toward something quieter, more intimate, and personal, is the first step toward really knowing, and then absorbing, the teachings of Yoga.