When I first started on this path 20 years ago (see last week’s post if you missed that) I was a grad student training to be a psychotherapist. Yoga was a way to develop a connection to my body, to heal the disconnect after a lifetime of unhealthy relationships that mirrored patterns I had learned early on. Yoga helped me enormously. I gained confidence with each practice, I settled my winds with pranayama and meditation, so my emotions calmed down. They did not stop being difficult, but I found that I could manage my emotions more effectively if I maintained regular yoga practice.
Eventually, people started asking me to teach, and as I graduated and became a psychotherapist, I discovered that my clients also benefited from yoga. In fact, I often found that it was the only way in. The mind can be so tricky, especially with people who have suffered abuse or trauma. The body is such an easy way to start working with people who have difficult emotional lives—you don’t have to think, you only have to do. Eventually this doing, with breathwork, starts to change the mind, and then you can eventually start to talk about it. And my biggest joy in life is to help people when they are feeling bad.
So I added yoga and meditation to my therapeutic techniques, my bag of tools. As the years went on I tried to expand and develop each of these tools: I went on retreats and Buddhist teachings to develop meditation. I went to Mysore and countless programs to develop yoga. I embarked on a PhD to increase my understanding of psychology and its applications in the world. Eventually my path was chosen for me by a journalist at Madame Figaro, a bourgeois French women’s magazine. One Sunday edition ran a piece on Ashtanga, and my email was listed. Not long after, my schedule was filled with private yoga lessons to the well-heeled ladies of the 16th arrondissement and diplomats from UNESCO. I followed along happily enough, sure that I had found my niche to help humanity find peace and well-being.
I originally started teaching full time because I saw it as the best way for me to help create peace and well-being–for myself and in the world. Perhaps idealistically, I taught to help people learn to tune in to their deeper natures and bring forth their inherent goodness, so that the world might benefit from all of us practicing yoga. Rather than continue with my internship in the Inter-religious Dialogue Department at the United Nations, or finish my PhD, I thought I would be more useful teaching yoga to individuals. To help create a better society, a la Chogyam Trungpa, one person at a time.
But now, after over 12 years of full-time teaching, I don’t recognize the terrain anymore. I was categorized under “fitness professionals’ at the place where I recently worked, though they invited me to teach at their meditation retreat center. And now, on the eve of my 47th birthday, my body no longer does what it did 20 years ago–it doesn’t want to. It’s discouraging to keep teaching in a yoga world that is increasingly defined by physical accomplishment. And honestly, I’m totally uninterested in trying to keep up. Yoga for me is a tool for checking in with the reality of the moment so that I can make clear choices that will benefit us all.
I never in a million years viewed this yoga practice as an exercise regime. Or a competition. Or a business. I saw it as an extension of my work as a healer—a way of training the mind in awareness, grounded in the body. It was the natural evolution of the work I started at Naropa University, where I became so empassioned (I know, it’s not a word, I’m making it one) by sitting practice and Chogyam Trungpa’s vision of enlightened society.
In the early days of my teaching, this was working to a certain degree because yoga was new enough that few people had tried it—especially in Paris. So there was beginner’s mind. People had few expectations about yoga; they could learn to tune in and breathe and feel better. Now, it’s a different story. Yoga is big business and spiritual materialism could fairly be defined by yoga’s evolution, in both East and West. You’ve got to get numbers up to keep a studio going, so you need marketing. You’ve got to sell yoga. I recently saw on Forbes’ list of the worlds wealthiest people that the founder of Lululemon is worth 2.9 billion. I see that and I think: that’s someone capitalizing on my sweat and good intentions. And reducing a practice designed to free the mind into one that incites greed. And that doesn’t sit well with me. Does that feel ok to you?
We’ve got some big issues on this planet to work out. And I’ve got some of my own to work through right now, around how I’m going to continue to do my part to help humanity. I’m encouraged to see many people recently collaborating with others to help on a more grassroots level. At the point we now find ourselves, with politics and economy and ecology going down the toilet, I see this collaborative effort as the only solution left to us mortal humans. I’d like to be part of this solution, rather than part of the problem. Wouldn’t you?
Tomorrow I’m going on holiday for a week to celebrate 47 years on this earth, and then I’m going to be silent for a month. I need to reflect. I have no idea what will happen on the other side, but I’m hoping for inspiration to begin a new direction towards peace for all of us. So you’ll hear from me again in September…
May all beings be happy.
2 thoughts on “Ashtanga Yoga and Beginners Mind — Part 2”
One of my very spiritually inclined and well-physiqued friends at one point a few years ago told me that he liked doing Yoga, and then he said, “Actually, what I do probably shouldn’t even be called Yoga. It should be called glorified stretching.” And since then, I have had a hard time feeling as if anything I ever do is really “Yoga.”
I had a class a few days ago where the teacher explained some things about breathing, and then said wholeheartedly that she would rather us stay in Child’s Pose and breathe correctly than take on all of the most challenging poses without paying attention to our breath.
I like this post. It seems like you are just seeing the meaningful practice instead of the exercise calorie-burning muscle-toning thing that people are calling “yoga”. They can comfortably go to “Yoga class” and think more about losing weight than their breath. I have never done a month-long retreat, or even a 7-day; the most I have done is weekend retreats with Shambhala classes. And still, I feel that I perceive some of the difference between what many people call “meditation” or “Yoga” and what was originally meant by these words. I love this post, I hope your retreat leads you to what you need, and in the end things will all be what they are. And for what it’s worth, I hear you. And I look forward to September 🙂
Thanks for your kind words Jennifer…it’s nice to feel heard and appreciated, especially when it feels like the crowd is roaring out of control! Keep breathing, whether it’s challenging posture or not..