Probably 95% of my Facebook friends are yoga practitioners, most of whom teach yoga. My Facebook feed is “all yoga all the time”- with the occasional personal rant, music video, baby photo, cat picture and social commentary. I frequently remind myself that my Facebook feed is not an adequate representation of life since there are people in the world interested in subjects other than balancing in handstand, whether or not one should squeeze their butt in backbends, and who should be blamed for the various ways that yoga has clearly been ruined.
Those people must be out there. I have to believe they are out there.
But clearly, I don’t know any of them.
I am kidding.
Okay, not really.
A few years ago, I found some of those people in a community of mountain bikers. I discovered people who got up in the morning, ate gluten-filled muffins, drank coffee with non-organic cream and white sugar (gasp!) and went on a ride through the mountains for fun. Amazing. Theirs was not the “spiritual fun” of yoga, backed up by deep teachings of lila and karma. Theirs was the pure, unadorned fun of bike riding. Sure, my new friends wanted to get some exercise, but that was just an honest part of the activity. These people didn’t seem to need spiritual exercise or meaningful exercise. They did not feel it was necessary to pretend they didn’t want a good workout when they actually did. Nope, these fun-loving people seemed to enjoy nature, eating good food, drinking beer and living for the managed (and sometimes not-so-managed) cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins and inspiration that comes from riding rocky trails at high elevations.
The cool thing about mountain bikers is that they are well-fed bunch. I think eating goes a long way for the camaraderie they experience as a group. In fact, I have often wondered if yogis might get along better with one another if we weren’t so hungry all the time. I mean, really. I know a lot of yogis and a good 75 % of them are trying to convince themselves and others that they can be happy people on a steady diet of green juice, kale chips and chia-seed smoothies. Come to think of it— maybe yoga isn’t broken after all. Maybe people are simply too hungry to make good decisions or to discuss important topics in a generous manner.
This is relationship 101, folks: Do not discuss important topics with people you love on an empty stomach.
Studentship 101 follows quickly thereafter: Do not try to learn something when you are hungry. You will get angry at the yourself and/or the person who is teaching you. You will find simple concepts difficult to understand and basic movements hard to perform.
Teaching 101 is a natural corollary to our now well-established principle: Do not attempt to teach someone when you, or when they, are hungry. You will not communicate clearly with low blood sugar. You will have a fraction of your god-given patience at your disposal. You will find yourself continually frustrated. You will forget that your students are doing their best to press their f-ing-first-finger-knuckle- joint down in downward facing dog but they can’t remember to do it because they are so hungry.
So, there is that. So many of yoga’s problem could be solved with a well-timed snack and some meals that actually require chewing.
Another fun thing about biking is that having large thighs is an advantage in the sport. Seriously. I have written extensively about yoga and body image over the years but I am growing increasingly convinced that if you want to feel better about your body you should probably walk away from the nearest yoga studio, not into it. Public yoga class might be just as likely to make a person feel worse about their body, rather than better.
Of course, there are places to practice yoga that are not outer-body oriented and teachers who work tirelessly to be provide a sanctuary that is inclusive, welcoming and affirming to people of all shapes and sizes. (Yes, Virginia, such places do exist and such teachers are out there fighting the good fight. )
And yet, the comparing, socially-conditioned mind comes with us everywhere we go. Despite many people’s best efforts over many years, yoga practitioners often report feeling worse about themselves as a result of going to class, not better. I am talking about thighs in this little tirade but the potential comparisons are endless where two or more are gathered in the name of yoga: Body size, shape, flexibility, strength, fancy poses as well as the numerous ways yoga teachers compare class size and attendance statistics among their ranks. All fair game, if you want to go down the road of comparison in yoga.
But I digress. Back to thighs.
If you walk into the bike store, you will see just as much lycra as you do in a yoga studio but you will also see a much greater diversity in thigh size. Instead of large thighs being the reason you can’t bind in the maricyasana twists or evidence of your clear lack of yogic discipline, your larger-sized thighs will power you up mountains and take you to places of awe-inspiring, natural beauty. As a biker you can proudly parade around a restaurant in the equivalent of an adult diaper while sipping a cappuccino, drinking craft beer and eating french fries, without feeling like you are morally deficient simply because you are unable— and have never been able— to wear skinny jeans.
All in all, biking just might be a much more inclusive experience than yoga, come to think of it.
So, I am happily pedaling away for a few years in the lovely warm glow of my life as a newly-converted mountain biker and guess what? Things in Mountain Bike Land are not as utopian as they seem. Evidently, mountain biking, just like yoga, is being ruined.
Yep. You heard me. Ruined. Stated in black and white, in a mountain bike magazine, is a compelling argument about the many ways that mountain biking is no longer what it was or what it was designed to be. Evidently, a sport which boils down to starting at one end of a trail and ending at another end of the trail, or perhaps making a loop so that you come out where you started, is ruined.
I am shocked. Mountain biking has saved my life, given me new perspectives, helped me expand my reference point for my work and my practice. I have new friends, new sources of inspiration. I have plain, old-fashioned fun in my life again. My mountain biking doesn’t feel ruined. My mountain biking feels awesome. Could it be ruined? Really?
And furthermore, I ask myself and the Gods of All That is Good and True, how can riding a bike though nature for fun with your friends and drinking beer later be ruined? Is that even possible?
I kept reading.
I learned that as bike building technology has evolved over the years, manufacturers are now able to build bikes that make the sport more accessible to people with less skill. By developing lighter bikes, better shocks, smoother shifting components, responsive brakes, stronger wheels and stickier tires, novice riders can ride trails that could previously only be ridden by seasoned, experienced and/or trained riders. The trickle-down effect is that different trails are being built and there are a bunch of “yahoos” on the trail who don’t know the sport’s etiquette and who clearly have not earned the right to be there. Additionally, there is now an increasing divide between people who think the trails should be as hard as possible because only certain people deserve to ride and trail builders hoping to make trails more accessible so that more people can participate in the sport.
Just like yoga, I thought.
I started practicing yoga in 1991. I do not remember a time in almost twenty-five years when someone wasn’t discussing how yoga was ruined. It is hard to know if yoga was ever okay. I mean, back when BKS Iyengar first taught yoga to groups, the practice went from an individual experience to a group experience. He added props of all things. Perhaps he ruined yoga all those years ago. But I digress.
Whether yoga was ruined when I got to it or not, I have found some help here for myself. I did not find the kind of utopian help that I wanted to find. I did not find the one-size-fits-all, one-stop-shopping-yoga-can-do-it-all, change-your-life-in-5-steps-and-in-5-days kind of help of modern culture. I found a guru who left a legacy of difficult Grace behind him that may take a lifetime for me to digest and assimilate. I found genius teachers who were also flawed human beings. I found amazing, compassionate friends along the way who were just as jealous, broken and wounded as I was. I found a work that has been both frustrating and redemptive. I found students who challenged me and who supported me, left me and stayed with me. I found my rage and my tenderness, my hope and my despair. I found a subject as vast and inspiring as the ocean that shows me my limits as much as my Possibilities. I lost and found my sense of humor more times than I can count.
My spiritual teacher taught me the spiritual principle of paying for my Work. He meant Work in the Gurdjieff-way as a Work on Self, as sadhana, as spiritual practice. He said, “You pay for the opportunity to Work. You do not get anything here for free.”
In another article, I might write about the fact that Lee also taught me about the free flow of Grace’s Blessings that can not be earned because they are very Nature of Things, but that is a different principle. Clearly, more than one thing can be true at the same time around someone like him. Like I said, his was a difficult Grace. I think the operative distinction in those streams of teaching has to do with the difference between Grace and Conscious Work on Self. They are related topics but address different domains of the Path. And when it comes to Conscious Work on Self, personal maturation and development, most of my lessons seem to require my own messy participation.
At any rate, I got the benefit of my genius teachers by dealing with the ways their flaws rubbed up against mine. The friendships that have lasted over the years have weathered the storms of jealousy and mutual disapointment which forced our initial compassion to grow into something more substantial. I can not describe the debt of gratitude I have to my students who have, over the years, helped me see my best and worst traits, and who, whether they stayed or went, each gave me the incentive to grow more fully into myself. And, in those instances that a student has felt inspired, moved and/or nurtured by my work, my own struggles have been redeemed, my own efforts have been been put to some good use and I have felt the Hand of God.
And sure, I see the industrial complex of yoga hurling toward its own ends and taking folks with them to greater and lesser degrees of negative outcomes. But given that for 25 years I have had teachers talking about the many ways yoga is ruined, I do not find this narrative surprising. I wrote a book about the yoga industrial complex back in 2003, in fact. Yoga From the Inside Out looked like a book on body image, however, it was a book about keeping conventional values out of one’s personal yoga practice. As yoga has grown and with the advent of social media, there is now more of the “ruination” to see. I am glad there is some good discourse about what is going on and some consciousness-raising about the various ways magical thinking meets Madison Avenue in the world of publicly-traded yoga.
I have never felt hopeful about the yoga industry. Industries function the way industries do and I don’t expect them to be different from what they are. Even if the industry changes the way it markets to me to be more inclusive, more politically correct or more conscious, it is still marketing to me and it has only one thing in mind— getting my money.
But, here is the thing— I no longer blame my students for being products of the industry that brought them to my class in the first place and that supports me in making a living the way that I do. I consider the conditioned-self our starting point, not our ending point, in yoga. One down dog at a time, one ah-hah moment at a time, there is simply the same work to be done that there has always been to be done: Meet the moment, bring awareness to bear on my situation, learn what choices I have, make my choice, observe the effects, chose again, meet the next moment. And the next.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."