26 September 2008

"The Yoga Teacher"

I've just finished The Yoga Teacher by Alexandra Gray and loved it.

Plot synopsis: Grace is dissatisfied with her job as a pharmaceutical rep and struggles with the decline of her long-term relationship. while pitching her company’s latest antidepressant to Dr. James, she is inspired by his plan to study acupuncture in Vietnam and decides to quit her job to become a yoga teacher.

Grace decides to study at the Bodhi Tree in California, which is the very loosely disguised White Lotus Foundation where Alexandra Gray studied. Grace returns to London but nothing prepared her for the students she amasses -- from the octogenarian industrialist desperate for distraction, the supermodel who indulges yogic aspirations when she tires of kabbalah, the American movie star, and the students with all types of maladies referred to her by a doctor. Grace soon finds herself relying on her correspondence and text messages with Dr. James for solace and inspiration.

Gray's descriptions of Grace's teacher training (and the people in it) and her students are right-on. she hits all the marks when she describes students' personalities and conditions and what they are looking to get from yoga. there is just enough "yoga talk" to keep the practitioner and teacher interested, but not so much that someone who has never done yoga wouldn't get what's going on. as a yoga teacher, Gray has an eye for the sometime absurdity of teaching and the delicate balance of the dharma and the dough, i.e., making money in a profession that pays very poorly.

I thought The Yoga Teacher was one of the more realistic fictional portrayals of the yoga teaching world and I found myself both laughing and nodding in full agreement at Gray's words.

Get the book, you won't be disappointed. and no, Alexandra Gray is not paying me for this good review, although she should!

17 September 2008

Ma India, take me home

As I've mentioned time and again on this blog, ever since I returned from my first trip to India in 2005 there has never been a day that I do not think of India. it can be a child's face that flashes through my mind, or something I learned in my yoga classes there, or a smell that makes me remember where I was when I first smelled that smell. a soap or a spice will bring me back. even the clothes that I bought in India still smell "like India." I brought back a supply of my favorite shampoo and sometimes I sit on my bathroom floor, open up a bottle and sniff...sometimes I cry on my bathroom floor.

I came across the blog of a professional photographer -- the photographs of India and Indians are beautiful, so I've posted this video he took in Chennai in 2006. I've been to Chennai three times and I've never visited Marina Beach. I've been on the beach in Pondicherry and Rameswaram but never time.

I want to, need to, return to India so badly. now that I am going through some rough emotional times I think even more about being in India, maybe for 6 months out of the year. India is the only place that heals my soul. an Indian friend told me that my heart is calling me to India because I am missing something here that I need very badly.

a regular reader of this blog and his wife will study yoga at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram for one month later this year and then travel to my favorite temple towns. email discussions of their itinerary make my heart ache -- I was in Tamil Nadu in January and I can still feel the temple ground beneath my bare feet, the sun on my bare arms, the smell of jasmine in my hair, and the touch of shakti all around me as I sat in temples. even though I returned from India this year sicker than a mangy Indian street dog, I was home less than a week when I started dreaming those Tamil Nadu dreams.

I want to go home. jai Kali ma, take me home.

07 September 2008

bhakti required

I find that the longer I practice, the longer I teach, and the more I meditate, the more I am drawn to bhakti yoga. maybe I should say that because of all of the above, my own bhakti has grown exponentially. I call myself Kali's girl and when I was at a Krishna Das kirtan, he chanted the word "Kali" in a Durga mantra and at that moment it literally felt like I was hit right between my eyebrows and the tears started to flow. that's bhakti. mantra chanting and kirtan are forms of bhakti yoga. I know a devout American Murugan bhakta who has never done one asana in his life, but he is a bhakti yogi.

I believe that bhakti, for the most part, is missing in Americanized yoga, at least in most of the classes I attend. I know that even chanting the single sound of OM can scare some people away from yoga -- I've seen students leave classes if the teacher chants. I always open and close my classes with meditation and at the end recite the Four Immeasurables and chant OM MANI PEDME HUM. I would not be true to my heart if I did not teach this way.

So I give you the website Bhakti Collective. The Bhakti Collective is "composed of persons of various backgrounds with a common interest in bhakti, India’s tradition of devotional yoga. It is a non-profit organization based in New York, which serves as a medium for the exploration and sharing of the culture, philosophy and practice of bhakti."

The Bhakti Collective has many interesting articles including this one, a critique on a Yoga Journal article about bhakti. in it, Kaustubha Das quotes Dr. Robert Svoboda's feelings about bhakti in western yoga:

“Some Western yogis dabble in bhakti yoga through an occasional prayer or kirtan. But if you’re a serious practitioner looking to find union with the Divine, a more rigorous practice is in order.” Svoboda says the path of devotion involves total dedication and surrender.

Svoboda agrees that it’s good to sing bhajana (Sanskirt hymns) to get into a new space. But he cautions against thinking you can really engage in bhakti yoga by occasionally joining in a kirtan. “That in itself won’t be sufficient to have a transformative effect that will penetrate into the deepest and darkest parts of your being”, he says.

“I don’t think most people in the yoga community have a concept of the degree of emotional depth and intensity and texture that is necessary for bhakti yoga really to flower”

Get out of your yoga body and get into some bhakti.

01 September 2008

yoga economics: a student's perspective

This post is an email I received from a devoted reader. his thoughts, his opinion, your food for thought...

"I was interested in, and moved by, your posts on teaching. I hesitated to respond on the site 'cause as you know I'm a student, not a yoga teacher. But even though I am an off-the-charts creative artist type I have labored in the upper echelons of the corporate world long enough to have picked up plenty of business smarts by osmosis, and so I often wonder how it is that yoga in America has become such a lose/lose proposition - economically.

Teachers, unless they own the studio they teach in, make a meager income. And as you say, elite teachers usually do stop teaching led classes at some point if they can (Tias LIttle is a recent high profile example; the great Richard Freeman still does, but he does own the studio and certainly makes most of his income from TT's and DVD/CD sales). On the student end, to take Boulder, where we lived until just recently, as an example, it is very expensive to be a serious student: $150 a month for an "unlimited" membership, on average, at a good studio, or you might get your per class cost down to $11-12 if you buy the costliest punch card. So for us as a couple taking 3 classes a week $66 a week or $264 a month for steady instruction - plus workshops or trainings several times a year.

The most expensive of the many, many health clubs in Boulder costs $60-80 a month for a couple's membership and while there are lots of issues with "health club yoga" the fact of the matter is that nearly all of the top teachers in Boulder do teach in those clubs - it is a necessity to make ends meet and offers the kind of predictable income that teaching at the yoga studios does not.

It is just heartbreaking as sincere students to show up at a class in, say, summer when studios in Boulder are slowest and be 2 of 3-4 people at a class to be taught by a teacher with 30 years of experience and many trips to India under her belt, knowing she will net $18-24 for nearly two hours of her time. We offer dana on top (invariably refused), profuse thanks.....and meanwhile Bikrams and Core Power across town are jammed. And this is in one of the meccas of meccas. Yoga Workshop (Richard's place) would probably be more popular, but with him lecturing on impermanence and death, on how the body is only a vehicle, on confronting our kleshas through the knots in our body-minds - in short, 'cause he and the others there are guilty of teaching and praticing actual yoga, many come once and then go where there's music and a "real" workout.

I don't know the solution. For us as people who chose to live cheaply in order to have more time for yoga and meditation practice it has come down to spending our limited funds on periodic private classes with a teacher well-schooled in the later teachings of Krishnamacharya plus periodic weekend and longer immersions. Led classes are now an occasional but much-appreciated luxury for us; we have had to develop a personal practice. That maturing is good, but I'd be lying if we said we didn't miss the group energy and sangha that comes with more times together. But as you (and Desikachar and others) point out yoga was traditionally taught with a single student, or small handful, sitting at the feet of one teacher, with students and teacher both giving totally of themselves. Maybe that's the only model that's meant to endure."

Thanks, K, for being such a loyal reader of this blog and for sharing your thoughts. much metta to you....peace, love, and hugs.

I know through my site meter that many of you have read my latest posts on yoga teacher pay and gratitude. a few of you have commented and I would be interested to read more of your thoughts on those topics and on this post, from both students' and teachers' perspectives.