I was talking recently with a fellow yoga teacher about a student who takes three to four classes every day. He was a little worried about the effect that might be having on her body, and was wondering if he should say something to her. I said,
“You know, we are yoga teachers. We’re not here to tell people how to live their lives. ...Wait....”
We both laughed. Much of what we do in our yoga classes is literally to tell people how to lead their lives. How strange: We are fitness instructors, gurus, healers, humans; many things to many people, and I don’t know any one of us who can genuinely say we’ve got it all figured out.
Yoga is becoming so wildly popular in the West. My Facebook feed is flooded with inspirational sayings [*cough* clichés].
It’s great: Huge numbers of people are trying a practice for the first time that has countless physical and emotional benefits. Huge numbers of people are walking into classes and getting told how to live their lives.
This worries me.
Yoga is an ancient and complex practice, and the way we do it here is really quite far removed from anything traditional that was happening in India thousands of years ago. This is a good thing: Western yogis need Western yoga. But sometimes it looks like practice whose center is the Downward Dog: some light spirituality and a few clichés sprinkled over a physically appealing ‘workout,’ and anything more challenging than that is rejected.
I actually had a student make a choking kind of retching sound when I announced I would be reading a poem at the beginning of a class. While I was reading, she was fidgeting and struggling, checking her studio pamphlet as if to see whether she had been warned that poetry might be read in her yoga class. She stormed out to yell at the girls at the front desk: “I expect a workout when I come to yoga!” she said, “not poetry!” It was my fault: I should have asked if anyone was allergic before I read that poem.
Alan Watts has written:
There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down—traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time. To some this is a welcome release from the restraints of moral, social, and spiritual dogma. To others it is a dangerous and terrifying breach with reason and sanity, tending to plunge human life into hopeless chaos. To most, perhaps, the immediate sense of release has given a brief exhilaration, to be followed by the deepest anxiety.
Watts goes on to explain that the loss of religious faith in our society as a whole has left us with deep fears about the future and our fates, and that we are constantly seeking new ways to fill that void in our lives. Watts wrote these words in 1968.
Yoga is an excellent candidate to fill the anxiety hole. It offers the community we miss from attending church, and the sense of spirituality, faith, and trust without the dogma that so many of us have learned to fear and revile (Hence, perhaps, the rise of poetry allergies).
The problem is that we are an anxious culture desperate for faith, which is by definition something we can trust without a doubt. The recent New York Times article on how yoga could (gasp!) cause injury upset so many people perhaps because it challenged the trust of the faithful.
But we must question this faith.
Many people think that meditation is all about turning your brain off. We think we are bad at meditating because we can’t make our thoughts stop. We think that yoga is all about focusing inward and going away to some sort of la-la land. You don’t get to Heaven by thinking critically.
We don’t live in Heaven, though, we live on Earth. We are imperfect humans living with a whole bunch of other imperfect humans. No one can tell us how to live our lives, and yoga is one tool we can use for learning how to understand ourselves better and make choices we can stand by.
I had a professor in school who taught me that the best kinds of books are the ones you want to throw against the wall. Reading a book with easy answers can certainly be pleasurable, but the ones you struggle with are the ones that are really giving you a gift: They are challenging you, refusing to tell you what the answers are, and encouraging you to think for yourself. You are the only person in the entire universe who knows what it feels like to be inside your body, and your yoga practice can help you make intelligent decisions from your own heart, rather than from what someone else told you to do. This is unquestionably harder. Also, juicier, sweeter, richer, and many other things you will find out on your own.
Authority figures, including yoga teachers, can be comforting to be around, and sometimes have some really good advice. There’s no need, though, to take anyone’s word for God, even if it sounds really pretty coming out of their mouth.
Anyway, don’t take my word for it. Do some yoga: Think for yourself. Just not four classes in a day, okay?