04 November 2010

yoga and the evolutionary process

No, not yoga and evolution. Yoga and YOUR evolution. Change.

I've been thinking a lot about what my student said in class the other night, about what she thinks "real yoga" is.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga caters to this culture rather than trying to change this culture.

To this student "real yoga" is about change on the micro- and macro- level. Or as I've heard Desikachar say, anything else is acrobatics.

I know the phrase "real yoga" upsets some people. People don't like to hear that phrase used, considering it judgmental or arrogant. They say that all yoga is good yoga and so what if someone does a 60 minute yoga DVD to get a slim, sexy body. And contrary to popular beliefs about this Krazy Old Yogini, I agree to a point: so what. The way yoga is advertised is a separate and entirely different issue.

Because as a wise reader told me recently, reality means that not everyone sings like Cecilia Bartoli or plays violin like Jascha Heifetz. So why can't we accept that there is talent involved in yoga and meditative arts also? The democratization of everything (democratization being another word for mainstream) makes us think everyone should benefit equally from martial arts, yoga, or tea ceremony, but that simply is not true.

Many say that the more esoteric benefits of yoga will eventually come to those who practice for purely physical reasons. I've never believed that because that assumes that everyone is on the same path, running at the same pace, equally. That's not true in a marathon and that's not true on the yogic path. There is also a little thing called karma.

There are plenty of people in yoga classes who practice for purely physical reasons and become stronger and more flexible, but they are still unhappy and depressed or full of fear. Some will be that way the rest of their lives, in varying degrees; others, not. There are those who will run from teacher to teacher, from one 'ism to another, and still die with their most intense fear buried deep within their hearts. There are others who have suffered horribly in their lives, studying with one teacher or even none, but through their internal work will fly on wings of joy on their dying day.

Life. Change. Stages of evolution. Karma.

The reader who wrote to me believes that it is only natural that some will not connect with the esoteric levels of yoga and will remain happy with a basic understanding of yoga, the basic level being purely physical. A lucky few on the yoga path will know enlightenment. Most will be stuck somewhere in between. This has to do with talent, but also with what the Chinese call yuanfen.

So even a basic understanding of yoga and attaining purely physical benefits are better than none at all, but I have my own standards of what constitutes "real yoga." And just as there is nothing wrong with someone doing yoga for purely physical benefits, there is nothing wrong with my standards either.

As I've come to believe over the years, students get the teachers they need at the time, teachers get the students they deserve at the time. Think about it.

One of my standards is that yoga is about physical and emotional healing. Another standard is that yoga is about accelerating our personal evolution. I've told my students many times that if something isn't changing for you off the mat, then it's not yoga. If your path is only the length and width of your yoga mat, that's not much of a path. That's my standard. And someone can choose to accept that or not because frankly, in the end, I don't care. It's your own personal evolution. Or should I say revolution?

In his book A Life Worth Breathing Max Strom writes:

"Hatha yoga is a profound evolutionary system that will benefit everyone who has the passion to change his or her troubled existence into an extraordinary life. It has changed my life forever, and every day I see it transform more and more people into happier, healthier, and more empowered beings....

Imagine two people practicing side by side. One is still and struggling in a posture, barely able to open his hips, but he is not letting it bother him. Instead, he feels calm in this difficult moment, centered in deep breathing.

Then there is the second person next to him, able to wrap his legs around his neck, but breathing erratically, thinking negative thoughts. Whose practice is better? Flexibility is not the aim; it is a side effect....

If you find joy and you are living a meaningful life, then you are becoming good at yoga....

Remember, the goal is not to tie ourselves in knots -- we're already tied in knots. The aim is to untie the knots in our heart. The aim is to unite with the intimate, loving, and peaceful power of the universe and fully awaken into the highest level of human consciousness."

(Max Strom, pp. 122-125)

A spiritual adept once told me that it is not my job as a yoga teacher to change people. They have to change themselves.

I can only give you a road map -- you have to drive the car yourself.

03 November 2010

just an old-fashioned girl

Last night in class I only had two students. Believe it or not, this no longer bothers me -- I show up and I teach. Despite how "mainstream" yoga people love to believe yoga is nowadays -- and I would really like someone to explain to me what mainstream is -- the number of students in class is diminishing. I'm not the only teacher in my area who finds this to be true.

So since it was a loosey-goosey class, we yakked for the first 30 minutes, me and my two students about the State of Yoga in America. I will add that this was totally unsolicited by me, these two gals just wanted to let loose. Of course this is not a scholarly study by any means, merely anecdotal, but interesting just the same.

One woman told me that she was glad she found my class -- this woman is older like me, I would say in her 50s. She told me she was glad she found a "real yoga" class -- her words, not mine, unsolicited. By "real yoga" she meant not "power yoga" (her words) as is taught in her gym where she takes Pilates. My class is the first yoga class she has ever taken (because her chiropractor recommended it), so she had nothing to compare it to. In spite of knowing nothing about yoga other than it was supposed to help calm her down, she somehow knew she wanted to take a "real yoga" class.

She was dismayed at the lack of commitment from the drop-in students. She asked why students feel that a yoga class is supposed to be convenient for them, instead of making it a priority like anything else in their lives. She asked me why students feel they don't have to support a yoga class, that they can just show up whenever they want to. We recalled the couple who came once and said that they "maybe" do yoga once a month. Uh...why bother? Was it a night they were bored and wanted to spice up their evening with my class? OK, I'm kidding.

I shrugged. I have no answers anymore to questions about yoga in OMerika. But I smiled and thanked her for calling my class "real yoga" and thanked her for her commitment to herself.

The second woman, younger, 30s maybe, was also dismayed at the lack of students in my class. She had been coming to this venue for yoga for a long time and told me the class used to have about 20-30 students in it. I was asked to take over this class to try to build it back up -- I had heard that the class had too many subs and people had stopped coming.

The younger woman told me -- again, unsolicited and her words, not mine -- that I was old-fashioned. I smiled and she laughed. She told me, "I think your class is the way yoga originally was before it became mainstream. You know...real yoga." Ahhhh....there are those words again.

I asked her what she thinks "mainstream yoga" is. I said to please explain it to me because I'm stuck in my little ol' boring box of asana-pranayama-meditation, so I am out of touch.

She said this: that the more mainstream yoga becomes, i.e., yoga taught all over the place, the more people will lose sight of what yoga really is. She said that yoga right now is trendy and popular, it's merely "the thing to do", just another fitness trend.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga has been dumbed down (her words) to cater to this culture rather than trying to change this fast-paced culture.

I will let that sink in because it is a very powerful statement.

She believes that people are so used to moving fast in their daily lives, that that is the type of yoga people want instead of yoga to slow them down, to go inward. She told me that to her, that's not "real yoga." She said, "if I wanted that, I'd go to an aerobics class."

I smiled. I told her thanks for saying I'm old-fashioned, but I prefer the term "old school." "Now let's do some old-school yoga," I said, as I started the vinaya krama class.

Out of the mouths of students.

I found the exchange interesting. According to my student then, "mainstream" merely means "popular." But is popular always a good thing? This student also believes that with the popularity of yoga nowadays, the sheer number of yoga classes being offered outside of yoga studios (her emphasis) actually devalues yoga and cheapens the real message of yoga, which is personal transformation. This student lives in a suburb that is far from my class. She told me that there is plenty of yoga around her house but it is the "fast food yoga", as she calls it, and will have none of it.

"Fast food yoga." I like that description. Sure you can survive on a diet of fast food, but how healthy is it for you in the long run?

Do you want fries with that?