Saturday, February 12, 2011

Yoga-centric Post

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that there has been a bit of a hoo-ha in the yoga world about an article in the NY Times about a woman who opened a yoga studio in Manhattan. Big news, right? I guess she gets a NY Times article because she is a former model and the person behind "Slim, Calm, Sexy Yoga". And who doesn't want to read about former models who promote being slim, calm and sexy? Also, she claims to teach "real" yoga, not that uptight, tradition-bound yoga that uses all those Sanskrit terms and everything. Further, she disses her yoga teacher training as being really inadequate and pointless. She opened her studio in reaction against all that stuffy stuff, generally thumbing her nose at the yoga establishment, at least the New York City version.

You can imagine how the established yoga world reacted to all that. It was like when Christine O'Donnell won the Republican primary in Delaware. Karl Rove was all over the place distancing himself from her while secretly watching to see if he should quickly embrace her (if she looked like she would win) or to totally trash her (if she looked like she would lose). She ain't one of us! Unless she is...no wait....she ain't! Definitely, ain't.

As much as I admire people who dare to speak out against the establishment and go against the tide to create something new my sense is that this person, like Christine O'Donnell, has the flaw of being wrong-headed at least in one important way (and it is here that the metaphor ends because i think Christine O'Donnell is wrong in far more ways than one). I think it is a mistake to take some minimal training, teach for a couple of years, and think that you know better. Even if she is a brilliant teacher, she is displaying a kind hubris that is indicative that she has seriously missed the point in living a life of yoga.

I agree with her that a lot of teacher training programs are not adequate. I feel lucky to have participated in one that was pretty comprehensive and that had the clout to pull in some amazing scholars and yogis as guest lecturers. I learned an enormous amount. Yet, in almost every class I teach, I see places where I could know more, know better. I suspect that isn't a reflection of my training but a reflection of how yoga is a life-long path that is infinitely complex. How can 200-hours of training really prepare anyone for meeting the huge range of bodies and personalities that one meets even in one class? YTT offers a skeleton of ideas that the teacher has to flesh out through their own experience and continued training. In my training, they were pretty open about this. After teaching a bit for the past two years, I feel like I mostly know how much I don't know. In other words, I feel damned humble about what it means to share information about yoga with people.

This morning I read a post by Anusara yoga instructor, Christina Sell, where she had this to say, not in reaction to the NY Times piece but after teaching an immersion class in Copenhagen. I think she gets to the heart of it quite nicely. (As an aside, I cleaned up a couple of typos.)

One of the recurring themes for me this week was the importance of really having an aim as a yogi. It seems more and more obvious to me that practices and lifestyle recommendations in yoga are NOT about a list of outer do's and don'ts designed to make us into some kind of "ideal yogi". Really, how we chose to evolve our practice and our studentship (I am not tallking here aout "yoga class studentship" but the larger consideration of being a student of Life, discipleship to the flow, sadhana, etc.) is really all about what we want from the yoga. If what we want is a health-based hobby, then the yoga is not going to ask that much of us or require that we relinquish a lot of our comforts, preferences, and so forth. But if we are looking for deeper outcomes from yoga than a hobby provides we might be asked to turn up the heat in our practices.

Mind you, I am not criticizing the different aims. I am not someone who has an issue with "yoga for a cuter butt" despite what people might think. Nope, that's not my axe to grind. I could care less why people do yoga in a way and have no interest AT ALL in convincing people with an athletic orientation to be more "spiritual" about it, for instance. That, to me,is a very boring discussion. Who cares? I repeat - not me. What I am interested in is that each of us know our personal reasons for practice and that we feel empowered by them and that we make intelligent choices in our lives based on those reasons. And, I feel no need to see the reasons- while all great reasons, in general- as the same. So things can be different and still be valid. We have to be grown ups about that, you know?


When I read that it makes me think that she could be telling me to not be so judgmental about the person who was featured in the article and/or she could be saying that there is room for all of us to be living our yoga (or not). I guess you can decide.

Here is the link to the Times article.

Here is an interesting article that, perhaps, explains a bit about why we were even reading about this person,

And another one that touches on the "Slim, Calm, Sexy" part.

10 comments:

Nathan said...

You know, I've had a share of comments on these issues over the past few months. It does seem sometimes like a cat chasing it's tail.

What concerns me about the commonplace attitude of "each to his/her own" and/or "it's all good" is that it creates a relativism that shuts down all conversation and consideration. In addition, I also think its a symptom of the spreading privatized, consumerist culture that says "you are entitled to do what you want, make of these ancient traditions whatever you want." It's all about "me" and nothing about the impacts, positive or negative, on the larger community or communities.

I agree with Claudia that there's no need for everyone to have similar reasons behind a yoga practice. And that "trying to convince people" to see things differently isn't helpful. But there is a difference between trying to convince and stating what you think and how you feel about a given issue.

There's a faux niceness amongst a lot of yoga practitioners that has, attached it, contempt for anyone that questions things, upsets the superficial happy glow, and/or offers critical analysis that "gasp" might include judgment. Judgment of ideas and actions is different from judgment of whole persons, but because people often don't want to think about it, they conflate the whole package. To me, the ethics of Buddhism, yoga, and other traditions are most interested in getting us to shed the tendency to judge other whole people, or ourselves. These same traditions are not telling us, in my view, to stop using our minds, make distinctions, or call out sloppy ideas or actions when they occur.

Robyn said...

Thinking about these ideas in terms of teaching yoga (vs. practicing yoga), I think it is hard to be quite that strict. For one thing, no one will come to your class if you aren't open to the people who are coming just to get a workout! Or, at least, I find I can insert snippets of what I feel strongly about but I can not make that a major theme of the class. If I did that, my classes would be mostly lecture, pranayama and meditation. Which is very cool, actually, but I suspect not terribly popular for people who are ready to move and stretch.

Part of it is that yoga is sold as a fitness thing not really a path to answering life's hard questions or realizing our true nature. And because of that, I can be certified to teach in 200 hrs. It is kind of ridiculous! When I think about how my Zen teacher studied as a full-time monastic resident for over 10 years before getting dharma transmission, I have to laugh at my ability to stand in front of a group of people and pretend to know anything about yoga.

I think that, just like in asana practice, we take small steps towards perfecting our practice and making it truly our own. Maybe someday I will teach the classes I truly want to teach but for the moment, I am still taking those baby steps. And maybe that is actually correct.

Nathan said...

I don't intend to be a "lecturer" as a yoga teacher. And certainly, some folks are just going to come for the workout, no matter what.

But I have never agreed with the idea that I should simply focus solely on my own practice until I sufficiently "get it" and then maybe I can comment on and "help" others. I see it all as a dynamic movement and flow. Some times, I'm more inwardly drawn. Other times, I'm more focused on what's happening around me.

How do we support others to work with the flow of life, and to actually help take care of what's happening (which includes themselves) - instead of just taking, taking, taking from the practice to be a "better person"?

I sound more strict on paper than I am in person. If being board president of the zen center, and also helping to start a non-profit, has taught me anything, it's to balance working with where people are at with offering a push whenever possible.

I see a lot of people preaching the work with where people are at side of the issue, but not as many skillfully addressing the push. Or the other side of Suzuki Roshi's quote "You're perfect just as you are, and you need a little improvement." The strength behind my comments is about supporting the push side. We need both.

Nathan said...

Just want to add that I support your taking baby steps process.

I've been on a rant about a few issues lately, including the whole "judgment" thing, and sometimes I need to halt the train and keep quiet for a bit.

Robyn said...

I know what you mean, and I know it is a topic that gets under your skin. The one thought I had was that it can be difficult to give that extra push (and I wholeheartedly agree that everyone needs it now and then!) when you don't know the people in your class at all or very well. Such a thing is important within the context of teaching yoga but one needs to know the student first. I'm sure you know this from all your teaching experience! I guess I was thinking about stepping in front of a room full of people who have never met you and never encountered yoga before...it is quite a daunting thing!

Nathan said...

"The one thought I had was that it can be difficult to give that extra push (and I wholeheartedly agree that everyone needs it now and then!) when you don't know the people in your class at all or very well. Such a thing is important within the context of teaching yoga but one needs to know the student first." Very true. I totally agree. Even when I had a relationship developed with my ESL students, I still often ended up walking into class with one plan, and halfway through, finding the need to either shift it or toss it out all together. Timing and flexibility are really key.

Jessica Powers said...

One of the things I'm finding in the response to the commotion about the NYT article and TS and the media portrayal of yoga is that many teachers do not seem to have a clearly defined intention as to why they do what they do and what it is that they want to do. What is the yoga they want to offer and how does that shape how they teach? Studios as well.

Maybe its the love of definitions and semantics in me combining with the ingrained lessons of media communications study, but I think that succinctly expressing the what and how of each teacher's and studio's intention/goal/mission statement/et al is falling by the wayside. It leaves us without clarity as to the broadness of yoga and begins devolving things to the lowest common denominator. That denominator is not, in and of itself a bad thing, but we're loosing vitality through homegeninzing ourselves by taking it on as the only denominator and allowing it to determine what we offer as teachers.

Yoga as a blanket term is only so handy in this way. At some point we need to use discernment, which Patanjali strongly promotes, and realize that it isn't judgment. Just look at how criticism in the yoga community is jumped on as trash talking and 'un-yogic'. What might be stopping people from being upfront about the yoga they offer - while yoga is for everyone, not every yoga teacher is for everyone - seems, to me, nice-washing: a fear of excluding people and not being nice and all inclusive all the time.

Robyn said...

Hi Jessica, So, so happy that you left that comment! I have a question for you....I feel a little bit gun-shy about taking a strong stand in my yoga classes in ters of "this is where I stand" because I had a very negative experience when I (attempted) to teach childbirth education classes - another subject I feel rather passionate about. I decided I would only teach the facts, which by the way, do not at all support current hospital practices around childbirth in North America. The long and short of it was that no one wanted to take my classes because I immediately was labelled as too judgmental towards people who chose more medicalized birth. But to back off seemed like telling untruths, so I gave up teaching instead. It wasn't too hard since no one was lining up for the classes anyway!

Sooooooo....I feel a little hesitant to walk that path with yoga. I have strong feelings about what it is/can be but I really want to teach! So I take it very slow and try to be open to all the reasons people might come into class. I do feel like I wish I could be more "myself" in some ways, but.......it isn't really about me, right?

This is a question I play with, without answers, a lot.

Jessica Powers said...

Robyn, I hear you! I come at the intentions aspect very much through my pagan spirituality study which reminds us time and time again to phrase what we want in an open manner that allows the Universe to provide, rather than as a list of what the intention will look like if it comes to pass. Saying 'I'm open to love with a like-minded and like-hearted person' rather than 'I'm looking for a man in this age range, in this wage bracket, who meets these physical characteristics, and does these things for me' for instance. It's almost like a visualization of feeling than of circumstances/situation.

So, for myself, I think of the words in my intention as gates into the land of yoga as I understand it. I just reworded my intention the other night actually, thinking about all this, and while I don't share the intention with students, or only very rarely, I let it guide me when I'm teaching. This is mine: Embody, Express, and Encourage the qualities and ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Love. How that comes into class will be different every time I step forward to instruct. But it goes, for me, to the heart of why I do what I do, and it helps me navigate what I do so that I can make it appropriate to the students in front of me.

...I can't wait to see what more comes of this discussion!

Jessica Powers said...

Robyn, I hear you! I come at the intentions aspect very much through my pagan spirituality study which reminds us time and time again to phrase what we want in an open manner that allows the Universe to provide, rather than as a list of what the intention will look like if it comes to pass. Saying 'I'm open to love with a like-minded and like-hearted person' rather than 'I'm looking for a man in this age range, in this wage bracket, who meets these physical characteristics, and does these things for me' for instance. It's almost like a visualization of feeling than of circumstances/situation.

So, for myself, I think of the words in my intention as gates into the land of yoga as I understand it. I just reworded my intention the other night actually, thinking about all this, and while I don't share the intention with students, or only very rarely, I let it guide me when I'm teaching. This is mine: Embody, Express, and Encourage the qualities and ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Love. How that comes into class will be different every time I step forward to instruct. But it goes, for me, to the heart of why I do what I do, and it helps me navigate what I do so that I can make it appropriate to the students in front of me.

...I can't wait to see what more comes of this discussion!