IN THE NEWS lately–a bunch of articles the over-seriousness of yogis and their teachers. Yay! I was hoping someone would bring that up.
It started with a post in Rick Cohen’s ethics column, The Ethicist, in the New York Times Magazine, December 5th.
A San Francisco yoga teacher, up for promotion, wanted to shoot down a competing colleague’s chances of promotion by outing his relationship with a yoga student (a relationship forbidden by studio policy). But she seemed to care more about getting the promotion than helping to promote the ethics of the yoga studio. Sadly, this striving to be holier-than-thou (literally) is all too common in the yoga world. Years ago, when I didn’t know what puja meant, an astangi explained it to me with barely contained distain.
The letter-writer’s question to Cohen–”if the owner knew about this, my colleague would not get the promotion and might be fired. Should I tell?“–reveals her thinly veiled competitiveness. I loved Cohen’s answer because it was so direct. The yoga world seems unable to be so frankly self-scrutinizing even though self-study is an important aspect of the practice.
Cohen writes, “If, as your actions — or inactions — suggest, you believed silence was appropriate during the past year, then it is still appropriate today. All that has changed is your self-interest. You now have a chance to trip up a rival for a promotion, a poor motive for reversing course.” Yes. Who knows, maybe the letter writer couldn’t admit her competitiveness even to herself. This is, I would say, an obstacle to good teaching and good practice.
NEXT, we have an MNBC feature Dec 7, 2008 –an outtake from Self magazine–about a woman who overcomes her skepticism about yoga and starts a regular practice, only to become an instant yoga-snob. The writer, Marjorie Ingall, who also writes for the Jewish Forward, catches herself judging fellow students and wonders what happened to the spiritual component of the practice.
She writes, “too many yoga students in this country have taken a tiny piece of a wider Indian worldview, one that isn’t just about exercise, and turned it into a new kind of self-absorption. Exercise is not sacred, much as we want to pretend it is. Worse, some yogis have internalized only the most negative aspect of religion — the tendency to think that outsiders are bad and wrong. The dark side of faith is when it turns on others.”
She goes on to say that what we all want deep down inside is a yoga butt and the right to feel superior to people doing other kinds of exercise. Well, that doesn’t describe everyone’s practice, but I’m sure that’s true for lots of people. It’s the downside of projecting our needs for authenticity, prowess, and purity onto yoga, yoga teachers, and fellow students (not sure what the upside is). Really, it’s an ongoing psych experiment that no one is taking notes on (yet).
MEANWHILE Adele R. McDowell writes on American Chronicle about falling off her mat and out of her pose in her very serious gym yoga class. No one noticed her dramatic kathunk onto the floor mid-class (not even the teacher) and the class continued without missing a beat.
She writes, “The class is filled to capacity with bright-eyed, Gumby-like students in form-fitting togs. They are awe-struck and reverential to the instructor, a lean, sleek and uber-serious young woman. The room bows before the altar of her yogic wisdom as she leads us in pose after pose. The teacher´s style is stern. One could well imagine this woman striding about in riding boots complete with crop in hand, rhythmically tapping her palm.”
Is that militaristic image familiar or what? And what’s it for, I wonder? Do those striding boots inspire people to have better practices and more authentic experiences with themselves and the world?
I know that sounds hokey, but we can be beaten up any time we like. Just walk outside and try to catch a bus. Life’s basics are not easy, but that’s why we go to yoga (I think). Yoga should not make things harder, in my humble opinion. And let’s check our egos –check them thoroughly– at the door.