Friday, April 24, 2009

That's Not Yogic

I was talking with a yoga teacher the other day who lamented that some students were making negative comments about her class - a hybrid of tai chi, yoga and pilates - without ever trying the class.  She lamented, "Aren't yoga people supposed to be open-minded?"  I can sympathize.  When I first started teaching, I also expected all my students and colleagues to behave in a serene, compassionate manner.  What could be easier than working with yogis?  This fantasy was quickly dispelled by the reality of the yoga business, which like any business, indeed like anything involving humans, has its share of delusion, greed, and spite.

Why do we expect people who take yoga classes to behave in a more enlightened way than others?  Certainly the traditional practice of yoga emphasizes moral behavior.  The Yamas and Niymasa are 10 guidelines for living in a way conducive to spiritual development.  The ethics of yoga has much in common with the ethics of Western religion: don't harm, don't steal, don't lie, don't abuse sexual energy, don't cling to things.   Gandhi is perhaps the best-known example here in America.  Classically, yogis were expected to cultivate these precepts as a prerequisite to further training in postures, breathing or meditation.  

But that's not true in the West.  Yoga students just sign a liability waiver, not a vow to be vegetarian.  Some teachers may mention the Yamas and Niyamas (I do occasionally), but it is not the foundation of yoga practice in the West.  So why would we expect students to be particularly virtuous?  There is nothing inherent in Downward Dog that makes the brain less prone to judgment and gossip.  A butt-kicking sweat-fest may leave me feeling peaceful and open to the universe, but that wears off in traffic.  I think this wishful expectation that yoga students will be more enlightened points to a deep longing for practices that help us grow beyond our selfish impulses.  Unfortunately, these practices take more commitment than one class a week.

I've also heard students criticize a studio's efforts to make money - through selling merchandise, or enforcing package expiration dates - as "not yogic".  Behind this statement I hear the suggestion that "being yogic" means never setting boundaries, always doing what other people want.   The original yoga "studios" are the ashrams of India, and they are generally "free"... if you are willing to renounce worldly things, serve the guru, and devote your whole life to practice.  They have many more rules than class packages expiring after 6 months.  Ashrams survive through donations from devotees.  And some of them do charge - at least they ask visiting Westerners to pay for room and board.  

But that's not the system we have in the West, and I'm glad.  Now that teaching yoga is (sometimes) financially viable career, it has spread far and wide.  (You can read my extended rumination on this subject on my website.)  Running a profitable yoga studio is HARD to do, and if selling chic yoga pants helps keep the doors open, then so be it.  Gandhi may have been austere, but he was also very practical.  That said, I find modern corruptions such as Yoga Booty Ballet to be quite disheartening...

The danger is that the practical demands of paying rent may overwhelm the integrity of the yoga tradition.  If profit beomes the only criteria for success in American yoga, then we're in trouble.  If the goal is more and more students, teachers are tempted to start teaching what is popular rather than what is beneficial or safe.  I see this dynamic at work in some Intermediate Vinyasa classes, where the music is pumping and the postures are fast and relentless. It can be great fun to "lose yourself" in the sweat and flow, and you leave feeling wrung out.

The problem is that many students jump right into Intermediate classes and never learn safe alignment.  Who wants to admit they're a Beginner, after all?  The flow classes move too fast for the teacher to offer much instruction.  Injury follows.  Habits of restlessness and impatience are amplified.  The mind is calmed through exhaustion.

I fell in love with yoga in a vinyasa class.  Fresh out of teacher training, I figured I would try to recreate what I experienced.  Plus the most successful teachers on the North Shore seemed to be teaching vinyasa.  I wanted to be successful like them!

The more I taught, the more I saw students in Intermediate classes doing horrifying things with their shoulders and knees.  My conscience demanded that I slow down, go back over the basics that many had skipped.  I started to teach more mindfulness in my classes, asking students to examine their urges to always move fast, push hard, do more.  Some students really resonated with this approach, but others did not.  They wanted to sweat and move, no stop and observe. Gradually, my numbers declined.  Studio owners politely asked me to either "try something different" or give up my prime morning time slots. 

At first this was a tremendous blow to my ego.  Why doesn't everyone recognize my genius?  I believed that being a successful yoga teacher meant having big 9:30am flow classes.  But it wasn't working for me.  Many self-doubting thoughts ensued.  What if I'm just not meant to be a yoga teacher?  The minutes before class became agonizing, waiting to see if students would come.  My sense of self-worth swung on class numbers.  Lots of attachement; not yogic!

Four years into teaching, I still feel anxiety over class numbers, but it's less now.  What changed? I let go of my morning Intermediate classes.  I received many Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions and started to trust myself more.  I accepted that my style of yoga is not for everyone.  I am practicing the "yoga of teaching yoga".  Viewed in this way, the mixture of yoga and business is not fundamentally tainted.  It is simply another (very challenging) realm in which to cultivate self-awareness.

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