asana, Ashtanga yoga, beginner's mind, brilliance, great teachers, Iyengar yoga, Kia Naddermier, Manouso Manos, Mary Taylor, modern yoga, problems with modern yoga, Richard Freeman, teaching yoga, yoga philosophy, yoga studios, yoga tradition
I have been a student of yoga since my late 20’s. At the time, I was on the verge of becoming a cocaine addict, I was sleeping with a silly fool and carrying on my most meaningful relationship with his sister. When I met my future husband, who in a handful of days will be my ex-husband, he found an apple and a bottle of vodka in my refrigerator and percocet on my nightstand, which I think I imagined as an appropriate recipe for the crashes. When I moved out I didn’t even need to go into the kitchen, because I had never cooked so much as a pot of water for tea.
Yoga is sometimes referred to as a net, containing within it all the elements of the universe. It caught me, or, more accurately, I had already been caught, and the net slowly revealed itself to me in secretive glimpses. Sometimes it felt like a prison, particularly when I misapplied to the concepts contained within the yamas and niyamas (loosely, internal morality and universal goods) the habits of an upper-middle class white girl with a high Episcopal background. People with such backgrounds usually prefer their commandments to be inviolable, and therefore forever guilt inducing. There is little place for that in Classical Yoga.
Mostly, yoga has been a release and a discovery. The asana element, certainly, is a revelatory joy and impossibly difficult. However, it is a fraction of the practice, and to me the greatest jewel is the steadiness that arises from yoga’s ancient, evolving philosophical background. There seems, to my admittedly crude understanding, to be literally nothing of the human experience that is not expressed, addressed, and analyzed, with often frustrating and contradictory results, within the canon of yogic texts, beginning with the Vedas and Samkhya philosophy.
From the beginning of my practice, I sought out extremely gifted, often brilliant teachers. I did not, to my unending regret, spend time in India before having children. This is a gap in my life that grows with every passing month, and within the next few years I will have to close the gap by creating a large one in my bank account, hauling three little beings with me to South India for whatever period of weeks I can steal from joint “parenting time” (a more inane phrase for pissed off divorce people was never imagined; fodder for another essay).
In the meantime, I have been busily spending countless hours and dollars and intellectual energy on an unending series of study with four teachers who have grown to mean more to me than it is possible, in this context, to express. These are the people, I have found, who can see; they have attained, or were born with, a capacity for philosophical, physical, and emotional insight that far surpasses even the more intelligent among us. It is the great gift of my life to be around these people, and to absorb their observations in my small way, to transmit them to my children, my students, and, to a far lesser extent, my own life (“the brain,” says Manouso Manos, “is the most difficult part of the body to adjust”).
Given that I attend these dharma talks, asana classes, pranayama teachings, and philosophy discussions with such radiant people, and with great regularity, it has only recently dawned on me that it is something of an irony that I have never truly examined why I seem to need to teach yoga, whether I should teach yoga, or if I even want to teach yoga. And this is not even examining the more important issue of general competency: attending dozens of trainings and intensives with great minds does not make my mind great; nor does it necessarily make my teaching anything that would differentiate me from the growing herd of Western people who open studios, teach in them, and develop ever new “forms” of yoga.
All manifestations of art and philosophical or creative systems require their participants to possess a beautifully rare blend of gifts with no antecedent, luck, and discipline (which, in itself, might be a gift). Certainly this is the case in becoming a devoted yoga practitioner, particularly if one is from the West, and therefore hasn’t the slightest idea what such practice really means from a cultural perspective. We are not one of us in the West born to the practice, and therefore make all manner of category mistakes in identifying with yoga and its lineages. It is, in some real and fundamental ways, an absurd experiment, possibly failed from its inception.
Or it is something new. New and beautiful and fraught with danger, ego, and possibility. I don’t know; no one does.
I do know this: what is manifesting all across cities, towns and retreat centers in the Western world are forms and styles of yoga that are more and more foreign to me. I won’t make any friends writing this (but that is OK, this blog is practically a private diary anyway), but most of the studios I find, to whatever city I travel, vibrate with a new-age fakery that makes me feel not like a yoga practitioner, but someone being asked to leave intellect at the door as I move through a series of poses set to a musical “soundtrack.” It’s as if I’m being asked to create a lovely film of my own life, which is the precise opposite of yogic teachings about illusion, ahamkara (ego) and realization.
Clearly, I am in the minority, as are all the other practitioners of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga. Millions of people practice in this way, and receive life-transforming satisfaction from doing it. Or, at the least, increased health, which in our sick society is nothing to dismiss. But flowing to Chance the Rapper will never do it for me, or, more accurately, would utterly do me in, and so the fact that my teaching opportunities are all at studios that celebrate and develop these sorts of practices make me… an outsider, and an increasingly alienated one.
I will never be an Iyengar teacher. I would not be happy only studying in this manner, as I already live so much in my pointlessly analytical head that not just jumping, many times a week, into movement and breath (Ashtanga) or movement and music (ballet) would kill me. Nor, however, do I possess any interest at all in the competitive, odd world of Ashtanga authorization, which one must gain in order to truly call oneself an Ashtanga teacher. I have met, frankly, some authorized teachers who are quite wanting in the teaching and compassion department, sometimes to the point of pathology. Too often, within a system that embraces an element of strict orthodoxy, people take the system containing their beliefs as something to overlay on an individual, as opposed to observing the manner in which that system and the individual blend and bend toward and away from one another. If Antonin Scalia were alive today and practicing, he would be at home as an ardent, strict Ashtangi. Literalists stick together. But what do I know? I’m not authorized.
So I cannot teach at an Ashtanga shala, and I cannot teach at an Iyengar studio, although these are the two lineages I study. And I belong less and less to studios that offer every form of yoga except something recognizable and resonate to me, as a teacher and a student. Of great concern to me as well is the fact that in the current yoga industry, a studio can only survive by offering teacher training programs of 200 hours. These are taught by people who are usually total beginners themselves. So in the West we are developing, rapidly, forms of practice that are becoming more diffuse, less precise, with barely a skimming glance toward the antiquity and impossible difficulty of yoga as a whole, in favor of keeping financially afloat in a world that already has too many studios doing exactly the same thing. It is literally the blind leading the blind.
To be a beginner is wonderful. To see oneself as a beginner is even better. I am at my most unhappy when I think I know something. I have never questioned the very simple fact that I am a beginning yogi, and I always will be. The beginner state is what I was born to: I am just lucky, very lucky, to practice. Enlightenment in, perhaps 10,000 lifetimes? One can only hope. So it is not a criticism to call other teachers, other students, beginners. Our society, however, is so egoic, and unused to taking decades and lifetimes to reach mere competency that the extreme slowness of practice itself might be what kills the practice. But the practice doesn’t care. It will just keep manifesting: it is, after all, the universe, and many universes, and all of consciousness itself.
My daughter asked me yesterday, “Mama, what was the first thing invented?”
“Well,” I said, “no one knows.” She looked at me, holding Bear. “Time, I suppose. Or space. Time and space, and whatever was before that. Can you imagine??” And we both looked ahead of us, as if the question had become something real, a concrete object. “Planets,” she murmured. “All the planets…”
“What a brilliant question,” I said to my little daughter. But she had not heard me, she had skipped off to her room to play with her little creatures in her own, brand new universe.
This essay is dedicated with all the love and grace I possess to Manouso Manos, Mary Taylor, Richard Freeman, and Kia Naddermier.