Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Endangered Students? - Day 3

Today I teach yoga at a studio 4 blocks down the hill from my home. The times I've made that walk must be in the high thousands by now. The studio has been open for 18 years, and I was there at the beginning - sometimes taking as many as three classes a day. Then nine years ago I took my teacher training and, pretty soon thereafter, began teaching there. So, it fits the definition of my home away from home.

Altogether I've had yoga in my life for over 40 years. It began with a book called 'Youth, Yoga and Reincarnation.' With that title and at my young age how could I resist? I would do at the most 2o minutes of the poses recommended in the book, then wait for enlightenment and what ever I was reincarnated from to show up. My next book was the 'bible,' BKS Iyengar's 'Light on Yoga,' which I read periodically in Sun Valley when lived in ski country. My reading was mostly in the beginning yoga philosophy section and I don't remember doing any poses. In fact I remember being alienated by the look of them in the plates.

The alienation continued - or expanded - when I came back to San Francisco and went to my first Bikram class which I found absolutely appalling. It was disgustingly hot, the sweaty people were ultra serious/unfun and nearly naked, there was zero to accomplish, no goals/just poses. For an adventure loving athlete who knew nothing except competing, aiming for goals and victories, having a blast, being well dressed for the sport, this yoga - complete with the enforced intimacy of the situation - was an anathema. So, how did I respond? By going again and again, of course.

Mentally it was the fascination of the abomination, but I think at a deeper physical level, my body was getting me there. It was sick of the constant anxiety of competing, the possible sports addiction as it was 'controlled' by constant high level athletics, the way it wasn't tended to or mindfully fed or honored. This class going began some 30+ years ago, and wended its way from Bikram to Ashtanga to some Iyengar, a smattering of Anusara, to the practicing and teaching of Hatha Yoga I do today. Literally - at 3:00 today I teach one of my classes - as I have done for nine years. Amazingly it has grown from 0-1 to 12 - 15 students in each class. That's a good number of students in any class, and even the studio is amazed that the class should be so well attended at that time of day. Me too in some ways, and I am proud of my students coming with such dedication and regularity. Clearly they value their yoga practice, their yoga community, their studio and their teacher.

In considering my now vast (for a Westerner) relationship with yoga, I find the recent New York Times article with the incendiary headline reading something like 'How Yoga Wrecks Your Body'to be disquieting and disspiriting. None - not one - of my students has ever had their body 'wrecked' in any of my classes, and neither have I been 'wrecked' in over forty years. I should mention nor have I been wrecked walking and riding my bike for hours as a child, skating, skiing, water skiing, doing varsity level gym sports, playing tennis, or any of the lifelong physical activities I've participated in on a virtual daily basis. Lots of people have been 'wrecked' in these activities - as well as horse back riding (which I did a little of), dancing (which I'm terrible at or might have done more), certainly mountain climbing, etc. But I don't know that any of them blamed the sport, and I'm a bit disquieted about why they blame yoga.

People get injured; yoga doesn't 'wreck them.' It is a strange and unique burden that yoga carries. Some of it is due probably to the murkiness that surrounds yoga. What is it exactly? After 40 years I don't really know - other than that the asana practice of yoga is a physical activity. Even the names of the different branches - some of which embrace no physical activity but chanting, charitable action, mediation - are confusing. This murkiness I find confounding in that same way the asana practice confounds me. I like things spelled out, to Know what 'it's' all about, and yoga doesn't offer this.

Perhaps because yoga doesn't define (or 'overdefines') itself, labels get attached: medicine, nirvana, the answer, bliss, 'good for you,' etc. I can testify a bit to the inception of the murkiness in the West as I was living in New York when I few women I knew from an acrobatics-type trainer we were working with sidled up to me and almost whispered the location of a place I should go because "I'd really like it." (Turns out these women were some very wealthy Greek daughters). When I went to the location, it was a brownstone in midtown. I walked up the stairs and into a dimly lit room with a candle burning in the middle and people staring at it in silence. Somehow I was just supposed to know that this was yoga and what yoga was.

So certainly it is vulnerable to labels, and now, to my mind, it is also vulnerable to myriad young instructors who 'fall in love' with yoga, take a yoga instructor training (sometimes after just a few classes and for just a weekend in an exotic locale), then get a gig (maybe even quit their job) and start yelling at or singing to students about the Joys and Benefits of YOGA while cranking each one - no matter how different their bodies - into the picture they have of the perfect looking pose.

This is so far from safe it cannot even be calculated. It takes at least 10 years to become a yoga teacher - and hopefully in those years the teacher encounters their own infirmities, struggles with class after class of no students, comes up against it economically but decides to continue, listens to their real teachers: their students who bring real life bodies, minds, spirits, concerns, etc. into the room. In this way, the real teacher comes out through compassion, humility, helpfulness, trust in the student's breath and body being able to work together to learn from (Not Accomplish!) the poses or decide yoga is not for them.

There are also Big economic and spiritual burdens on today's yoga. Many of the young (in experience and depth) teachers and other members of the 'health industry' who have joined the bandwagon are in need of exposure, marketing, ways to build their businesses (and eat). There is even a growing number of people who see yoga Only as a business and - often without ever doing yoga - offer lucrative retreats. As I write the money is in teacher trainings and retreats, so you see teachers/tour directors offering one after another of these.

And what sells the retreats and trainings? The murky but emphatic promises of Joy, Enlightenment, Spirit, Health, Beauty, Thinness, You Name It. So, there are more and more people coming to yoga with vague, unrealistic notions of what a Panacea it is. Many of these people aren't thinking, just believing, and without being present to their true teachers - their Inner selves - a lot of them apparently get 'wrecked.' (But even this is questionable because a lot of doctors and therapists have found a schtick in dissing yoga and newspapers and magazines have found yoga sells - especially with sensational headlines).

There is a saying - This too shall pass. Yoga energy - like all energy - will continue on its course.

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