Years ago, my teacher at the time, was facing criticism from the community as his work grew beyond a small group of students into a global network. One of the criticisms—of which there were many— was that his long-term students felt lost in the crowd and were missing the close, personal connection they had shared with him in the early days and upon which his growing empire was founded. Additionally, new students felt disconnected, unseen, and invalidated because, in any given workshop, they were one in a sea of people. They didn’t feel what their teachers described feeling from their early days with him, which also created an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of situation.
More could be (and has been said) about that time, but it seemed to me that as the project grew in scale from a close-knit, bonded group into a world-wide movement, the mechanisms of leadership had failed to adapt effectively, leaving both old and new students hurt and frustrated.
At one conference, attempting to quell this rising tide of discontent, my teacher told the group how he was “there for everybody.”
I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, boy, we are in for it now. There is NO WAY he can be there for everybody. The only way this can end is badly.” Later that week, I begged him to changed his narrative so that he stopped promising something he could not deliver.
I think he wanted to be there for everybody. And I think the scale of his experiment was no longer as satisfying for him without the deeper connections that marked the early days of his teaching work. And while the desire to be there for everybody may have features of a narcissism, I do not think that is the whole story or the singular explanation of what was going on. Not everyone agrees with me on this, obviously.
Instead of making bigger, more impossible promises, I wanted him to start to talk honestly about his limitations and how a larger community can not provide the same things as a smaller community. As a community, I wanted us to understand that, even with such limits, it was possible to have many of our needs met, but probably not all of them. I wanted a discussion that acknowledged a solid yogic education— one complete with spiritual inspiration and community connection— does not require perfection of the teacher, ourselves, or one another.
Of course, that shift in narrative is not what happened.
And I should pause the story to say that my perspectives may be what they are because I personally did not feel abused or traumatized by my involvement with my teacher. He hurt my feelings. I hurt his feelings. We had fights. We had misunderstanding and differing views. I made choices that he probably still sees as a betrayal. And there was a lot of good that passed between us. All those experiences are there in all of their messy glory. And yet I did not feel abused. And I feel like my yoga education was good. Not perfect. But good enough.
Not everyone feels the way I feel and I am sympathetic to the difference in perspective. I am aware that each person involved with this teacher walked away with differing views on the time they spent with him. I want to be clear that in some cases, many people feel that the ethics violations were significant and therefore some of my perspectives are not going to be useful to others because a different set of boundaries— internal and external— may be needed for healing in cases of abuse.
Recently, our minister was preaching about how to bring Love and Oneness to life in our lives by staying in relationship. She described how her family of origin would discuss hot topics, disagree, and fight and yet still were able remain in relationship around a dinner table, as a family. She clarified that Oneness of Heart did not mean not to disagree, but lived in the unity of being a family in the midst of disagreement. Then she said, “I must make a caveat here— In cases of abuse, I do not advocate staying in relationship.”
So like that. In cases of abuse, ethics violations and the like, many of my — or anyone’s— philosophical musings must be applied relative to one’s specific situation. None of this work is easy, simple or one-size-fits-all and it often goes more wrong than right.
However, I am still interested in a vision of yoga that is not anchored in some kind of utopian yoga dream but is, instead, anchored in a paradigm of “good enough.” Of course, depending on who we are, “good enough” can vary significantly, making the whole topic even more daunting to actualize reliably. For instance, for folks with a history of physical abuse who come to yoga, a class “good enough” not to re-injure, and perhaps even provide a healing opportunity, is likely very different than for someone who is not coping with those wounds. Same with race, size, gender, socio-economics, education, physical abilities and limitations, illness, health, addictions, etc. And yet, part of the utopian yoga dream (as I see it) is the expectation — conscious or unconscious— that one approach, one class, one set of cues to give or to avoid giving, can somehow address the myriad of needs that exist in any given community of practitioners.
I recently had a discussion with a colleague who outlined a vision for a yoga that was inclusive, politically-active, trauma-sensitive, egalitarian, and more. I nearly had a panic attack hearing the description because I knew there was no way my public classes and workshops could or would meet such a standard. Even if I was doing my best to meet the high standard outline-- and to be clear, I try to do a good job-- there would be people walking into my classroom who, despite my best efforts, would eventually feel hurt, ignored, unseen, unable, and left out— some of which would be my fault due to my unconscious patterns and biases and some of which would be due to theirs.
I think we probably need to do better as teachers and as an industry and there is certainly room for improvement and clarity. I am not discounting that reality. Issues abound. And I think naming problems for what they are is important so we know where to apply our efforts toward improvement.
And, as time goes by, the less I have come to expect yoga will provide. The asana practice has been great form of awareness, physical expression and discipline for me. I also love to hike, bike, and paddle a kayak. As much as I love asana, it does not satisfy me completely as my sole physical activity. And while I have had very few chronic injuries from asana, I also go to bodyworkers of all kinds to help with my aches, pains, unique tweaks and peculiarities. For instance, when my hip hurt, I had an MRI and the thing that helped the most was a shot of anti-inflammatories, not yoga therapy. I have found immense psychological resources in the teachings and practices of yoga. I also have a great psychotherapist. I find some of the yoga philosophy enriching and inspiring. I also go to church, read across disciplines and truth be told, at the end of the day, right now I find more solace in contemplative prayer, time in nature, being with my dog, and writing in my journal than I do in the average dharma talk, church service or yoga class. Some of my favorite people are my yoga friends, students and colleagues and I have found that having friends who don’t care about anything yoga to be immensely valuable, oftentimes possessing a practical, unencumbered wisdom that can be hard to find in spiritual communities so often bogged down in right’s and wrong’s. I have profound gratitude for my teachers and yet, I have found that they are all human, they do not always see me in my best light, and they have each, at some point along the way, hurt my feelings.
I don’t teach asana because I think it is everything anyone needs for a happy, healthy, meaningful life wrapped up in one package. Perhaps, because so much of my public life revolves around my work as a teacher, asana may appear elevated beyond what it is for me— an important facet of the diamond of my full life expression. I think that, as important as it is, as much as I invested in asana and yoga philosophy over the years, the value of these pursuits in my life today exist more in relationship to the other facets of my life than in the totality or singularity of their expression. But let's face it, most of you know me because of yoga, not because I love my dog, I am a good cook, I help my parents, I have a wicked sense of humor, I like alpine lakes, I have a great art collection, and so on. The parts of my life that fill in the fullness of who I am are not as publicized as the backbends, arm balances and teacher trainings. And the fuller the other areas become for me, the more a yoga that is good enough is well, good enough.
All right, more could be said, but I have been wanting to keep these blog entries shorter, not longer and this is now right at 1500 words so I will sign off for now.
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