“Love must be incarnated in the smallest pore of the skin, the smallest cell of the body, to make them intelligent so they can collaborate with all the other ones, in the big republic of the body. This love must radiate from you to others.”- B.K.S. Iyengar
This was my third trip to teach in Sydney, Australia at Preshana Yoga. When Ananda and I planned this visit last year we talked about how nice it would be to have a workshop at Preshana that was a bit less intense in terms of the time and financial commitment for the students. My previous visits were part of a 200-hour training program and were 6-day courses and we thought it would be great to give students a way to touch base with themselves, with me, with each other, without such a major undertaking. We planned a day-long Teacher's Intensive and a weekend workshop and since it happened to fall over Valentine's Day we decided to go with the obvious theme of LOVE.
Teaching LOVE is always a great theme for me because it reminds me of why I practice, why I teach and what I am actually interested in in my own sadhana. As much as can spin a yarn on the business of yoga, the trends in the evolution of the practice, my opinions about effective teaching and so on and so on and so on... the thing I am actually into is LOVE. All the smarty-pants yoga knowledge I have and love to learn about from other reliable sources is only part of the picture. All the fancy asana in the world is valuable only to the extent it returns me to myself in love. As much as I operate under the overt expressions of engineer-athlete as a teacher and practitioner, I am primarily a bhakti yogi. To me this whole thing is about love.
Now, as we all know, I am not into love as some kind of ooey-gooey- lovey-dovey-same-same it's-all-good-whatever-goes-its-all-yoga-hare-krishna-kind-of-thing. I am into love as the only-thing-that-will-simoultaneuously-kick-your-ass-while-empowering-you-to-be-your- best-and-is-the-only-thing-of-lasting-value-in-the-whirlwind-of-life-as-we-know-it. I am into love like that. The kind of love that works you over and carries you through. Ken Wilber says it well in his book Grace and Grit: "Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you."
And since it doesn't always come easily to me to reside in that place inside myself, I consider it a great blessing and boon to have an entire weekend to explore asana and teaching as Pathways to Love. As we all know, I love asana as exercise, I love the anatomy, I love the intricacies of alignment and I adore the joy of movement. On one level, I love those things for themselves. I really do. I am happy to walk into a very physically-oriented class and let the physicality of the practice be what it is. I do not always think about God when I practice trikonasana at home. I really don't.
And yet... (you see, with me there is always an "and yet...") And yet, those things in and of themselves, as awesome as they are, are not my primary interest in the practices and principles of yoga. Were asana only a physical thing, I would still be training for races, lifting weights and going to the gym all the time. (There is nothing wrong with those things AT ALL. I am not grinding an axe here about those things. I think those activities are perfectly compatible with yoga and higher aims. As we all know, I love a great bike ride, a walk in the woods and I am happy whenever someone is intelligently exercising. I am simply referencing my history where many of those endeavors gave way to what I found on my mat. Everyone has a different story.)
And as much as I am interested in all the physical aspects of the practice within their own right, I am more interested in how the deeper knowledge of the body, the anatomy, the postures, the breath and all of the attending techniques, work to open me up interiorly. I am interested how the technology of yoga expands my awareness and how that expansion makes new pathways of movement available to me. And as much as I love new physical openings and progress in and through the body, I am not talking about physical pathways of movement only. I am talking about pathways of movement that allow me to apologize more quickly when I am wrong, to own up to my shortcomings with less shame, to choose behaviors beyond addiction and to feel love for myself and others. Those are the pathways of movement in which I am most interested. And that is the yoga I pursue every day.
I recently wrote a Facebook post that I do not, and never have done, asana every day. Some of that has to do with working with my own compulsivity, some of that has to do with lifestyle and schedules and some of that has to do with knowing my body needs rest and recovery days to enhance performance. At any rate, I think the only practice I can say I do every day is Remembrance. I endeavor to Remember myself, my values, those things that I love, that I hold worthy of adoration and devotion and to call them to my consciousness. Sometimes Remembrance is internal. Sometimes it takes outer shape. Truth be told, all the inner and outer practices of asana, mantra, pranayama, diet, prayer, self-observation, etc. can all be filed under the category of Remembrance. Lee called the basic practices The Names of God and taught that these sanity-producing activities of practice were the ways that we could bring devotion, or love, to life.
I'll write more soon but the point is that well, love is the point. And as far as I am concerned when we are in the stream of love- be it self-love, love-for-child, love-for-an activity, love-for-student, love-for-teacher, love-for-mate, love-for-Beloved and love-for-God, it is the love that is stream of divinity, not the object of said feeling. I ponder this a lot these days- Love is the verb. Not the object. God is the verb, not the object.
Anyway, we started with these ideas on our first day for teachers and continued throughout the weekend with asana, pranayama, chanting, laughter and well- LOVE!
Here are the sequences we worked with. More or less we stayed close to the list with a few forays and explorations from the baseline. Enjoy.
In one of the comments following my last blog entry, a reader told me that she would rather hear me speak directly about the realities of the yoga world we are all living in than to pretend to be above it all. (Not a direct quote but you can read it all for yourself. And you can see that this entry is based on my initial response back to her.)
Here is the thing. I have been dabbling in the field of personal growth and body-centered consciousness studies since I went to treatment for depression and bulimia for 18-months at a program based on the EST programs back when I was 18 years old. Along the way in and through my recovery process, not only did I get into yoga and teaching yoga, I also waited tables, cleaned houses, worked as an addictions counselor, a wilderness instructor, a fitness intructor, a personal assistant and as a marketing and admissions counselor at a therapeutic boarding school. I also spent a lot of time owning and running a coffee shop /cafe with my husband and I had a yoga studio for 6 years. Since 2006 I have made my living as a yoga teacher piecing work together from local workshops and trainings to what has become an international and increasingly web-based endeavor. I have done all kinds of things over the years to earn a living and have gleaned a little bit of knowledge about marketing and business along the way.
However, I am not trained as a marketing person and I am not trained as a branding person and my education in those areas is not as developed as it is in the arenas where I have spent more time and in which I have given more of my attention. That is my discalaimer right up front-- I am about to talk about branding and I am going to do my best to get it right but I want everyone to know up front that I know that I know that I am not an expert in the field. I know about work. I know about the Path I have been walking internally and in business and I know how these paths relate to, compete with, clarify and confuse each other.
It’s alchemy, right? We are combining different elements to make a thing that is entirely new. We might make gold and lose interest in the Path. We might go crazy from the toxic agents needed to create the necessary combustion for transformation. Or we might just succeed exteriorly and interiorly and through some combination of luck and skill learn how to bring our passion to life, to join dharma and vocation, to serve others and ourselves and to join the inner and outer practices meaningfully. That is the aim, as I see it-- the age-old adage of “be in the world, not of it.” Or, kick-ass in business and stay true to your yoga.
Okay, back to branding--
So my understanding about branding is that you can craft a brand and make a product fit into the brand that you crafted. Seems like I remember that Republic of Tea did this. They were not really passionate about tea so much as they were passionate about creating a brand. It did happen to be great tea, but their branding was stellar and somewhat radical at the time. No longer were these little cardboard boxes of tea bags cluttering up our kitchen cabinets, now these mystically-inspired round cans with images of harmony and nature were suddenly showing us how to live life at the pace of tea, not coffee... and so on. So that is one avenue you can go down. Find a niche in the market that needs filling, create a brand and a product that fills that niche and away you go down the road of business success.
Another approach to branding, as I understand it, is to really know your self and your product and create a brand identity that matches the identity of said product you are selling. In this case, the brand represents the product in the marketplace, much in the way a persona represents the psyche in the world of human relationships. (I told you, I am more of a psychology student than a marketing student, thus the metaphor.)
And, knowing our product also means knowing what it cannot do, what it is likely to be criticized for, what its shortcomings are and where our product stands in relationship to the other products on the market. So some branding even succeeds by making fun of these criticisms and turning them to their advantage. Didn’t Radio Shack actually just knock it out of the park at the Super Bowl with a variation on this theme? Anyway.
Part and parcel to branding and marketing is that the product needs to be placed well in the marektplace so a keen understanding of the marketplace and the consumer is also needed for the branding to be most effective.
So-- even though I so boldly stated that YOGA IS THE BRAND in my last entry and even though there is a way that is true (or at least a way that a part of me wishes it was true) it is only part of the story. When we are selling ourselves as yoga teachers, when we are promoting our work as teachers in a crowded marketplace filled with both talent and skill and less-than-developed-talent-and-skill, it simply is not that easy, right? Of course not.
Much in the same way that there is no yoga that is entirely seperate from the one who is practicing it, there is no yoga class, workshop, retreat, or training that is entirely seperate from the person who is teaching it or leading it. Teaching yoga is a very particular type of product that has both tangible aspects and intangible aspects to it. That is the greatness of the job. That is also difficulty of the job.
A great place to observe this principle is in a Bikram yoga studio that uses the dialogue. I am always amazed by how different the class can be depending on who is teaching even though the outer form is always the same: twenty-six poses, in the hot room, done in the exact same order, led with the exact same script. So, how each one of us teaches the yoga--that means who we are, how we are, and so on-- all become part of the product, the brand, if you will. I get that. Even in a same-brand studio like Bikram Yoga, where all the teachers teach the same style of yoga, some teachers’s classes are better attended than others. And because of the way resonance works, we are naturally going to be suited to work with some teachers more than others and this just makes sense.
And look, when we, as yoga teachers, really dig into who we are, what we are good at, what we love, what we want, what we are not good at and perhaps, even what we criticize about ourselves, we are often doing the work of branding as an exercise in soul-searching. I am all for that. One of my students, Jess Boylston-Fagonde, even developed a program called Brand Thyself which is actually more “Know Thyself-- make peace with your inner critics, claim all of yourself and turn it to your advantage to bring your passion forward in business and make some freakin’ money while you are at it, because as the title of this entry stated: A girl’s gotta eat.” Her program, if I understand it correctly, is about soul-searching through the lens of branding, much in the way, I think asana is about soul-searching through the lens of physicality.
All of a sudden, conscious business can be a doorway of, well, consciousness, and the lines between yoga and business and personal and professional get blurry. That can be a great thing. That merging can truly be the gold of which I was speaking in my previous entry- the gold of financial return, sure, but the gold of living a life involved with your passion, of sharing the Teaching, of helping other people, of working in a meaningful way.
It can also be the mercury if we are not careful. Whenever boundaries get blurred, my inner radar goes off, because my personal sanity has always been somewhat linked to my ability to create meaningful distinctions, to establish proper boundaries and limits and to stay clear on which domain of truth I am speaking and living from. (Please read: This is a nice and positive way to say that I have gone crazy in more ways than one and for more times than I can count and have hurt myself and other people inadvertently due to fuzzy, blurred, messy and/or unmanaged boundaries.)
So, the business of yoga might be the gold of true meaning, it might be the gold that the lesser self seeks be it money, authority, power, fame, acknowledgement, and it might be the mercury and take us into its grip of our various forms of crazy. Yoga teachers everywhere are under more pressure than ever not just to preserve the teachings well but to pay the rent, get the numbers, carve a niche and to find a place of integrity for themselves in a crowded and noisy marketplace. I want us all to be smart business people, I really do. I want us to have great personas as teachers and marketing materials that represent that creatively and accurately and I want yoga teachers to put their kids through college (or themsleves), to buy organic food, be able to pay for medical insurance and so on and so on. Yes, we need business help!!!
And for me, I also need to remember who I am as a practitioner. To use a personal example-- I do a lot of buiness online these days. I enjoy interacting with students and friends via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It is a great interface between the business and personal that I enjoy. However, just this week I watched my compulsivity with checking my online accounts be more in charge of me than I was of it. As a buiness person “I was managing my accounts well” however, as a practitioner, I was being eaten by the entitiy of Facebook and as a mate, I was distracted at dinner. Facebook was the mercury- a great agent of alchemical blending- gone toxic in my life and in my consciousness as I felt scattered, preooccupied and disctracted. And knowing this, “a girl’s gotta eat” and Facebook helps me get business done. It is also wrrecking my inner state a bit. So... I have some boundary work to do.
Here is another one-- how much to share? Stick only to inspiring yoga quotes and we are kinda full of shit. Share too much about a few too many drinks and few too many times, and our authority is compromised. Don’t say enough about some of that and we have some secret life. And on and on. Listen only to the critics and we will feel terrible about ourselves. Listen only to our fans and we will miss out on valuable potentially growth-producing feedback the world is trying to offer us.
I could go on with tons of my examples but this is already too long. (It is part of my brand-- “long-winded but generally insightful and often downright inspiring....”) Besides, I don’t think that any of us ever get it 100% right or find some place of perfect balance in all of it. I think marketing, branding and the subsequent managing of our businesses in yoga is messy. To varying degrees we are participating in making an inner process a commodity and I think that is inherently problematic. To some degree we are taking something deeply personal to us and putting a price tag on it and putting it on a shelf next to others who are doing the same. And then we hang our liveliehood on it. And our family's financial stability. Yes, I think it is fraught with problems from the git-go and I think this is the situation in which we find ourselves. I don’t think any of it is easy.
I also think, however, that because it is difficult and problematic, it is also inherently full of potential for growth. We don’t get clarity from clarity, usually. We get clarity when we bring light to our fuzziness. We get boundaries after things have blurred.
And while this could be its own article, my marketing friend who told me we needed to make the yoga more relevant and I had many conversations on this topic over many years. At the end of one of my more outrgaed rants, he quipped with a glimmer in his eye, “Well Christina, sounds like no-brand is your brand then, huh?” So that is the full circle irony of it when we are in the business we are in where we are part of the product. I am okay with that but I am cautious and I worry.
And sometimes I think I might not be worried enough. I see in myself how easy it is to get swept away into the stream of business and out of the stream of my deeper values. And I also know that empowering and humble place in teaching where a magic occurs when my unqiue personality with all its quirks and idiosycnchrasies is serving the needs of my students and the alchemy has happened. It is me and not me. And you better believe I want more of those moments for myself. In fact, I want more and more of those moments for anyone who stands in front of room of people and endeavors to bring them deeper into a relationship with themselves through yoga because if a girl’s gotta eat, those moments are tasty food.
I have more than a few rants rocking around in my head right now but as I sit down to write and I think of my teacher's teacher's advice to "say something useful" I am forced to push a few of my more irate commentaries to the side tonight in favor of the hope of going down the road of useful as opposed to indulging a commentary that might be somewhat gratifying but not necessarily so useful.
I mean, the thing is there is an increasing amount of noise out there in the Yoga Teaching Ethers, particularly coming to us via social media avenues. There are #blogsfordays on what is wrong with Yoga Alliance, what is wrong with the way we teach, what is wrong with posting picture of ourselves in fancy poses in fancy places, what is wrong with being white and skinny and narcissistic, what is wrong with green smoothies, what is wrong with our yoga pants and with their leadership, what is wrong with the gurus, what is wrong with our immature relationship to the path, what is wrong with yoga as a commodity, what is wrong with groupons, what is wrong with the heat, what is wrong with the non-heat, what is wrong, what is wrong, what is wrong.
And it is kinda funny that these commentaries bug me because I actually have a pretty long list of "what is wrong as I see it" and maybe this blog is beginning to sound like a rant about what is wrong with saying what is wrong.
Oy vey, what is a girl to do?
What does this girl actually do?
I do wade through some of this content and commentary since as a teacher and teacher-trainer, I think it is important to become familiar with the landscape in which I am participating. And lately I am thinking a lot about what Real Yoga actually is and why that actually matters to me. I am even thinking about IF it matters to me. I have occasional fantasies of "getting out of yoga" and "getting into mindful movement and wellness" as a way to bypass the conversation all together because I find it so enervating. Honestly, I lay no claim to Real Yoga and have NO IDEA if what I do is in that realm at all. I do believe what I do is valuable and meaningful to me and to my students and that matters more to me than whether or not it is "Real". Honestly, I really do not know anymore. I have even lost touch with how one would know. I know my guru liked the way I taught yoga. I know he told me repeatedly to teach. I do know I do my best. Other than that, well, it's a bit of a crap shoot, I think.
Years ago, I had a conversation with a marketing friend of mine who told me that all us "traditionally-trained yoga teachers" had to start shifting the way we taught in order to "stay relevant" to the new generation of practitioners. This person was interested in making the yoga more interesting and more compelling to younger students and thought that if we did not "stay relevant" we would find ourselves alone in our middle and older age talking to only a few other people in the room about the wonders of alignment in yoga because all of the younger generations of practitioners would be doing some new yoga that was somehow cooler, sexier and more "now" than well, the traditions and practices that, um, well, take us into NOW.
We had an argument.
As a marketing person he had a plan about how to do this and an exciting vision about the ways and means of wrapping the yoga up with relevant bells, whistles and bows. As a yoga teacher, I had an objection about taking something that I saw as so valuable and complete as it was and making it conform to the whims of consumeristic culture and a tide that was moving away from what I believed was the essence of the teaching.
His point was , "We can do this! We should!"
My point was, "Just because we can, does that mean we should?!"
We never agreed.
Look, I am not an idiot and I understand marketing. I am not saying I am marketing genius or anything so I know there is plenty for me to learn. But just about every marketing person who has ever come to my class has given me a list of things they think I should do to improve my "brand", including but not limited to: get a new website, use ONLY professional photographs, lose weight, change my hair style, take more photographs from more exotic places, give people more intimate glimpses into my life, give marriage advice, give diet advice, tell people what I eat for breakfast, tell people more about my eating disorder, make my life my brand, sell my lifestyle not my teaching, and so on and so on and so on.
And just so we are clear, I have also been given great advice I have implemented. But a lot of the time, I have to really think about this kind of thing because, while I believe that a lot of this advice would actually drive my numbers bigger-- I mean I do believe some of this would literally help my business grow--I have actually declined a lot of their advice because I am quite certain some of it would mean death for my inner life.
So, I have this funny idea that yoga is the brand, not Christina Sell. I, of course, am willing to play the game of branding myself. But only to a point. Because to me, the brand is YOGA. I am interested in helping people forge a deep and lasting relationship to the practice of yoga, not to the brand of Christina Sell. I believe that if people find a pathway to the principles and practices of yoga, then they have a pathway that holds within it the possibility of having for themselves a means of listening to to their inner wisdom, of resetting their inner compass according to their own values, not those of society and certainly not even "yoga society" and of creating moments of harmony between the various aspects of self in and through the body. I believe that this pathway has the possibility of being self-affirming, self-empowering and self-generating. I do know I have my own-- somewhat, yet not entirely-- unique ways of presenting those practices, but honestly, I am not interested in pitching that so much as I am interested in simply presenting a path of practice and a way of being in relationship to one's practice, that is intelligent, discerning, accepting and empowering.
I happen to think that dignity, self-love and self-respect are always relevant. I happen to think that knowing oneself will always be worthwhile. I know that yoga will get dressed up in tutu's, get put on stand-up paddle-boards and will be sent to wine-tastings, chocolate-pairings, love-ins, festivals and community gatherings of all kinds. I know it will serve as entertainment to some and as ego-gratification to others and that hordes of teachers who have no business teaching yoga are out there representing the teaching with no clue about the what, the why and the how of the tradition and the practice. There is tremendous momentum in the world of yoga right now that, at times, is nothing short of horrific and yet, well, I can't do so much about that other than watch, observe, comment occasionally and wait.
My guru occasionally talked about alchemy. He had this idea that the alchemists DID learn how to turn lead into gold. He was convinced- for a variety of reasons-- that the alchemists of old really did figure out how to make gold out of lead. But, he said, the folks that were in it for the money, got the gold and went on to do what people obsessed with money do-- save and spend gold. And other folks simply went crazy from the mercury, the agent needed for the alchemical process. (And as we all know, fame, other people, pressure, etc. can make you crazy just so we are clear how this related to the current yoga culture....) The alchemists who actually did it, who actually made the gold from lead realized what they had and kept their freakin' mouths shut because they knew the preciousness of what they had discovered. They used the gold to support themselves but they didn't exploit it and so as far as the world knew, they never really succeeded in alchemy. And that was how they wanted it.
Lee saw these three possible outcomes as lawful and the way Alchemy-- as an art, science and sadhana-- kept itself pure: 1.) you got what you wanted--money- and you backed out of Alchemy and out of the Path, 2.) you went crazy and 3.) you got the gold and stayed true to the path.
And so, I figure it is a popular trend right now to cry out about all that is wrong in modern yoga. I keep engaging a long-range vision where I see that hopefully some of the insanity out there either 1.) gives people what they want, 2.) makes them crazy and spits them out and/or 3.) fulfills the aims of the path and leads people deeper accordingly.
So that is what I mean by watch and wait. There are so many weird things happening right now and so many insanities rearing their ugly heads and yet, well, I do think yoga will keep itself pure. It seems to be doing a good job these days of revealing the crazy and of spitting certain folks out when it is time. And well, more could be said but in addition to watching and waiting, I also figure that simply residing in sanity might me a good way to go.
And I remember, Dignity is always relevant and Self-respect never goes out of style.
Keep the faith.
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