It’s been that time of year when many people discuss the commercialization of holidays. Though yoga is not a holiday, it is still no exception to that concern. In addition to my inward yoga journey for the past 10 years, I’ve also witnessed the journey outside of me—namely, the drastically changed yoga climate, within a world which has also changed profoundly.
Many of those changes feel great. For years, strangers thought I was super woo-woo when I shared that I practice yoga. Nowadays, I am much more normal. When I was searching for local yoga studios 10 years ago, hardly any of them were on the internet. They were all in the Yellow Pages™ though, so I called their LAND LINES to ask for the schedule and information about the classes. (As you can imagine, word of mouth recommendations meant a lot.) Now, internet outlets abound with information and instructors.
An equal share of disillusionment, however, balances my joy. When I began teaching asana, the few studios in town had very simple websites. But the virtual landscape was still very sparse (as was much of the internet). I began teaching with little fanfare—only a brief email to the studio’s list that I had some of my own classes. Nowadays, the internet is barraged with yoga, mostly asana (as it’s bombarded with everything else). YouTube videos. Facebook ads. Twitter updates. Instagram photos. Et al.
Let me be clear—I don’t wish to hate on technology. I believe that virtual presence can be useful; I understand that photos can be important encouragement. I am frequently bowled over by what people accomplish for themselves, like when one of my students in chemotherapy still practiced between sessions. Or another student, morbidly obese when we met, slowly became healthy enough not to feel winded by a few sun salutations, and eventually practiced for an hour at a time. I am grateful for those moments to witness the power and grace of others.
However, my Facebook feed is packed with targeted ads showing people perfectly attired in perfect postures, about whom further research reveals that they began practicing yoga in the last 2 years. (I often find fancy yoga photos beautiful as art, but not functional.) I find many studios with shallow, reductionist offerings—such as 8 “different” class descriptions that ultimately sound the same. Anyone can post anything on the internet—including neophyte, uninformed yoga instructors.
So much ego, not enough yoga. I stop paying attention when fancy photos overpower information. As I mentioned last month, I care about the real-life lessons and the effects of asana practice, more than the asanas themselves. Likewise, I try to promote my teaching via my real-life qualities as a person, more than documentation of my asana practice. I focus on my job, rather than a photo feed.
I do my best to ignore the people who present themselves as asana whizzes, receiving affirmation because they are so bendy or strong or amazing or whatever, without any other substance. Worse, teachers often use this presentation, delivering it as though they don’t crave the attention.
In contrast, yoga teaches detachment—i.e., not clinging to physical ability. We must discern the subtle difference between disseminating information and flaunting for the sake of ego. Although I am not and will never be the world’s most adept asana practitioner, I am rarely—as in I can’t remember the last time—impressed by most asana promotion.
I can explain. I know it’s impossible to see it all. But if I haven’t come close, I have at least seen enough that very little in terms of asana impresses me anymore. Nearly ten years ago, I studied in Mysore (Pattabhi Jois was still teaching at that time). Practicing there kept me in the company of some of the most advanced ashtanga practitioners in the world. Seriously—in comparison, all those postures in my FB feed, even ones of people touching their feet to their heads, look like small-time parlor tricks. In Mysore, half the people in the room could comfortably put at least one leg behind their heads. Some people could sit on the floor and fling their legs smoothly, effortlessly into lotus. I knew several guys who did five handstands, after each of their five navasanas. That’s so rare that multiple searches on YouTube only yielded one video of that sequence. (And the camera angle doesn’t even capture the complete view. But you can get the idea.)
Nearly every day, the same guy was in the corner of my field of vision. For about twenty minutes of my practice, he stayed in variations of handstand. He held himself vertically. He widened his legs. He bent his knees and put his feet together. He did lotus. He even dropped his legs halfway down, which is a much harder balance. He stayed in all these handstands. Not “was in” or “did” various handstands, which I worry implies that he dropped his legs to the floor between them. Stayed—without ever touching his feet to the floor. For twenty minutes. The process was easy to notice, even in brief glances, because he stayed in all the poses for several minutes. Moreover, he never looked tired or shaky. He held all those handstands the way people stand comfortably with both feet on the ground.
So…yeah. I’m not trying to hate on people who do awesome $%!&. The human body is miraculous, and intense physical goals often yield invaluable lessons. But those opportunities are not meant for the ego. Someone else will always do more.
And so what? No one is more enlightened, worthy, or wise simply from physical ability. Handstand man was one of the most adept practitioners I encountered in Mysore. But he wasn’t actually the most inspiring. The most inspiring person I ever saw was a man who was very fit, and certainly for his age very flexible. But he was far from adept in comparison to everyone else. He was an anomaly in Mysore, probably near 60, whereas most people were age 20-45. No handstands—not after navasana, definitely not for twenty minutes. He attempted a lot of advanced poses, though they rarely looked effortless. But him facing his struggles is exactly what impressed me so deeply. From a rational perspective, he had every reason to feel outclassed. And yet this didn’t prevent him from showing up anyway—if he even cared at all what other people did. More than anyone else, he motivated me to show up and try harder. No exceptions, no excuses.
Students at my studio, Ashtanga Yoga Atlanta, generally range from age 25 to over 50. Some people calmly put both legs behind their heads; some people struggle to balance on only 1 foot. Sometimes the same person fits both descriptions. The people who inspire me most are usually the ones who have practiced consistently, regardless of obstacles—including people who have struggled mightily with their bodies.
One of those students woman is a breast cancer survivor, who was quite fit in her younger years, but allowed her health to decline (what she believes contributed to her cancer). After more than a year, she’s still incapable of chaturanga (a push-up). But she’s regained sensation in a shoulder that had 4 years of numbness. I’ve seen her terror, and she’s shared how often she has cried in car, both before and after class. And yet she still shows up, every damn day. When she’s not in class, I know she’s out of town. Her grace, courage, honesty, and vulnerability are far more compelling to me than perfectly lit and composed photos. She and other students render my excuses whiny and meaningless, and I am humbled and grateful for those reality checks.
In my naïveté when I started practicing asana ten years ago, I truly believed sitting in lotus and holding headstand were wild beyond belief, that I’d never accomplish them. Now, I can put my legs in lotus while I’m in headstand. So I’ve already surpassed my wildest expectations.
Showboating has never been my thing. Particularly as a teacher, I don’t wish my physical ability to be the flagship of my identity. I have posted exactly 2 asana photos of myself on social media. One of them was for my studio’s Facebook page. Though I don’t care to document my asana practice for the sake of attention via social media, sometimes I think I should for reference. If anything, I think photos of myself struggling would be far more meaningful. I wish I had documented when I couldn’t touch my toes, when I used to freak out in various postures. I would be happy to show those photos to my students, as evidence of how much one can change.
Experienced instructors, however, are also not exempt from shallow, useless promotion. It is sometimes more subtle. One teacher, now fallen from grace after a massive scandal, has a new website. The final sentence of his bio:
“I am renown [sic] in my teaching style for being very enthusiastic
about the sacred complexity of life, and for being intensely passionate
and fiery for excellence in the practice of hatha yoga.”
Typo aside—unless, of course, he believes he is the literal embodiment of fame—which, of course, is entirely possible—a nice statement. Though worth noting it’s just a fancy way of saying he’s excited about the human condition—a state which is not exceptional at all, as far as I can tell. Most humans I know are fascinated and inspired about life’s complexities, sacredness, and mysteries. And passion for excellence is the very least of what I expect from any teacher. In all, I am unimpressed, especially from someone who makes as much in a weekend workshop as I earn in six months or more.
Honestly, E. E. Cummings wrote a much better version:
“I am someone who proudly and humbly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries, and that nothing measurable matters ‘a very good God damn’;
that ‘an artist, a man, a failure’ is no mere whenfully accreting mechanism,
but a givingly eternal complexity—
neither some soulless and heartless ultrapredatory infra-animal
nor any understandingly knowing and believing and thinking automaton,
but a naturally and miraculously whole human being—
a feelingly illimitable individual;
whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose every agony is to grow.”
That’s my intention, and I have a lot of work to do. I remain disinclined to post another asana photo of myself, but I can share something from my studio:
If you want to see the most accurate picture, you can find us in the mornings. Everyone is welcome, and we will all both fail and triumph.
SK © 2013