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emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites teaching yoga habits

against platitude :: or :: a spiritual examination of “for a Reason”

by ©Daryl Seitchik

Please know that this is not meant to insult or belittle anyone’s spiritual beliefs. I am not the gentlest of communicators. Trust that I’m working on that: Delivery is everything. I simply feel the need to point out relying heavily on platitudes as a form of spiritual bypassing might not be serving you well.

When I see the word spiritual, I often recoil. What is meant? It is used as if it has a shared meaning, and perhaps within specific groups it does, but it lacks a real definition. Yeah, I just looked it up, and even wikipedia agrees. In our neoliberal age, spirituality is individual. There’s something oxymoronic about that but never mind, not now.

I didn’t take ‘spiritual’ out of the title because I mean it. (Mean what? I’ll use the as the social scientists’ definition, as per wikip, for the moment.)

In the past few weeks I’ve been around some yoga people. I was taken aback by the repetitiveness of the phrase, “It happened for a reason.” And not just the repetition, but its delivery. The sense of disquiet beneath the words was palpable, as if this explanation was not quite quelling their unease.

Well, good. It shouldn’t. Maybe it didn’t just happen “for a Reason.” Or more likely, the reason is that perhaps you made a bad decision, one you’ve made in similar ways before, and you’re rejecting those gnawing little feelings of discomfort. Maybe you should take a second or two to explore that before hoisting it off onto divine providence. Maybe that woman who just broke your heart did so in a way not dissimilar to the last three, and you need to look at the reasons you choose the way you do. (You don’t choose? Please. Take some responsibility. You choose.) Maybe jaunting off for a little trip to Brazil while your sister was on her death bed was not such a great plan, and the guilt that hit well before she made a turn for the worse is something that needs your attention. It was not the first time you jumped ship. Chalk it up to A Reason, and it won’t be the last. And maybe taking that job with the Man when you’d saved three-times enough to start your own business was for no reason but fear. And over and over again.

It is a problem. Not only because it’s annoying (50x so when you’re dropping it on someone else’s pain), but because it prevents clarity. I’m not going to tell you what yoga is, but for me, the (spiritual) practice is about clarity. Using platitudes to avoid pain is an obstacle, not a gift from above. In the long run, nothing you eat, drink, wear, buy, or otherwise use will save you from that discomfort. It must be faced.

And it’s painful.

The biggest positive changes in my life were inspired by pain. An easy example: Around the time I finished college, I was a bridesmaid. My friend and her wedding party were fashion-model stunning. After the ceremony, a friend of the bride dressed in a gown very similar to ours (I was told she felt she should be a bridesmaid), snarked that I looked like a cow in the bridesmaid dress. A horrified groomsmen quickly tried to gloss over her comment, but it was too late. I was hit. It hurt for the obvious reasons, but also because it triggered something in me that was uncomfortable with how I ate, looked, and felt. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have hit me like that.

by ©Daryl Seitchik

Thanks to luck, I didn’t head off on a get-thin-quick or a binge-and-purge regime. I found books like Geneen Roth’s, who said to eat what I wanted and noticed how that felt. It was slow going, but long before I learned to meditate, I meditated on each bite I took. This happened for quite some time, maybe months. I didn’t just notice that when I ate too much I felt horrible, I noticed that when I ate high-carb, low-fat food, which the health science of the day advised, I felt tired and awful. In this shift toward awareness, I also noticed that looking at women’s magazines made me feel equally dreadful and that moving my body (hiking, walking, etc) felt really great, both during and after.

I lost weight. If I was tempted to indulge in a pint of ice cream, I called up and felt the searing pain in that horrible comment, and I didn’t. This was, for a time, the main focus of my life. It was not what I ate, but noticing, at every bite, how the food tasted, and if I was hungry. I came to the point I could have chocolate or ice cream or pizza, and without restraint or wanting more, eat only enough. And though I’ve gained weight once or twice in the years since, while indulging on long trips or depressed in a bad relationship, the knowledge of how to check back in was always there when I came back to it.

Sorry to burst any “naturally thin ashtangi/yoga teacher” bubbles. 🙂 Like most people, if I don’t eat well and exercise, I gain weight. (Other than NYC walking and summer swimming, my ashtanga practice is my only exercise. This is not to say people larger than me don’t eat well and exercise.)

It seems shallow, that this change in my eating was a significant life change, but when we look at the money, time, and anxiety women (and increasingly men) feel about food, eating, and our bodies, it is not. If only I could have all the time spent in my teen and college years spent on worrying, counting calories, and reading about nutrition (the science of which changes every few years to fuel profit for new diet fads. Vitamins, too. Who funds that “research”?). It wasn’t just the weight loss and feeling comfortable in my body, it was the awareness I gained of how I felt. It shifted so much.

So the comment. It was for a Reason! Maybe in hindsight it looks that way. But if I’d have used that excuse then to diffuse my pain, it’s unlikely I’d have done anything about it. Anything that nags at you is asking for exploration, not platitude. If you are in too much pain for that, I ask: Do you want a band aid to get you through to the next round of the exact same experience, or do you want to find in yourself the Persephonean effort required to meet your pain and its causes? That’s the only place real change comes from.

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emo yoga :: rage, fear, so sorry, etc

yogaagoa
New Yorker Cover 2003

The last post talked a little bit about emotion from a classical Yoga standpoint. It may have been a little dry and unhelpful, especially if you do yoga to feel good rather than to achieve enlightenment. Most yoga practitioners today aren’t that interested in enlightenment (I’ve noticed that far more meditators practice with that aim than yogis), and that’s understood. In the late 19th and early 20th Cs, yoga was revived and transformed for the lay person, the householder. This opened the door for even more transformation when it arrived in the West, to the point that you hear anything and everything is yoga. Maybe. Maybe not.

Western psychology is very different from Indian, and the Self and emotions are viewed differently. (There are different views of emotion and Self within Indian philosophy and psychology, but they do tend toward a different, less individualistic view than in the West.) We often hear a mishmash of philosophies and psychologies when we walk into a Western-style class, which can be very confusing. Especially if you just went to your local gym for a stretch, you begin to feel hot with anger, and the teacher is telling you to feel the love blossoming from your newly-opened fourth chakra. What do you do with that?

As mentioned last time, for the yogi, emotions are something to be transcended. Compare this with the words of Carl Jung, the 20th Century psychoanalyst interested in consciousness and ways of being. His ideas tend to resonate with people interested in yoga:

“Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”

For me, this resonates far more than transcending my emotions altogether, partly because I trained myself early on to repress emotions, to bury them to the point it can still be difficult for me to access how I feel, particularly if my ego deems them threatening. It’s a pretty common defense mechanism for Westerners, who preference image and the rational-cognitive mind above all else. If you haven’t felt your emotions, you can’t transcend them.

My biggest issue with the love and light spiel is that it encourages repression. This is why spiritual bypassing (“The use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs” —Robert Augustus Masters) is such an issue. Take a person who isn’t comfortable with his emotions and tell him that he’s headed toward enlightenment if he transcends them. POOF! You have a person with little-to-no self awareness who sits on a cushion blissing out and avoiding half his life, because he skips that crucial early step of meeting and feeling his emotions.

So if yoga brings “a lot of neurotic thoughts and unmanageable emotions (particularly rage) more to the surface” (previous comment), that’s a good thing. Look at it. Feel it. Notice it. Anger can tell us a lot. Just as much as joy and bliss.

Since the So mUch Yoga and Still Such a Bitch post, I’ve had a number of conversations about rage, all with women. Thinking about it now, I should probably have more. It seems that this getting angry, shutting it down, then some time later exploding in violent rage, usually toward an intimate, over, say, taking out the trash, is almost ubiquitous. It’s common. I had no idea.

The maddening thing about this is that it’s impotent. If you freak out on a minor last straw, you are just a hysterical bitch. Your feelings and arguments are moot. You are out of control. Unfeminine. Too feminine. Bad. Shame on you. Take the shame and self-loathing, press it down and play nice. You were so wrong to throw the lasagna across the room like that. What is wrong with you!?

I am so sorry.

But I’m not.

Maybe you’ve noticed that this relationship with anger doesn’t work now, and didn’t work the last 1, 10, 100 times. But what else is there to do?

lionrageThe pattern does serve us well in one way. It keeps us from really facing our rage, which is far scarier than the anger, self-hate, and occasional melt-down we despise but are used to and comfortable with (if you don’t believe me, watch how much you resist changing your approach).

So then how to face the rage?

I don’t know. What I have started to do is watch myself closely, and instead of judging it, just watch. It starts with irritation. Often it ends there, but sometimes not. I’ve noticed that I become extremely irritated when I feel someone has transgressed my boundaries. When someone is late, when a house guest reads over my shoulder (my god, some space and privacy, please!), when the neighbor blares pop music at 5:50am, even if I am awake. Do I respect other people’s boundaries? Of course I do! When I notice them and feel like it. Sometimes.

So, why do these human slights make me so irate?

Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. I could go back to childhood or family patterns, and that’s probably helpful in some ways, but what’s really interesting is just noticing. I’m getting irritated. I’m getting angry. What does that feel like? Where is it coming from? As soon as I go into story or analyzing, I try to go back to not knowing and just feeling what’s there. Where is it in my body? What does it feel like? Is there sensation? Is it constant? Does it move or change?

One thing I like to do when I get close to the heat is shift my attention to someone I love, a funny moment, a fuzzy, loving feeling that floats me far away from the hot, sticky pull of anger. That feels so nice! But it’s cheating. It takes me away from what I’m afraid to feel, leaving it underneath to do God knows what.

There is something bigger there. Something as yet untouched. I feared it before but it’s beginning to be a little more okay. The fear is still there, though, more conscious than the rage. But the more I play with this, the less wrapped up I feel in it. The more I feel my anger, the less I react to it. Recently a friend apologized for something that would have angered or hurt me before. But I wasn’t angered or hurt. I understood where she was coming from, though it’s a different place than I inhabit. When she apologized, I’d totally forgotten the incident. I was able to say, honestly, clearly, “Oh, no worries, I totally understand,” in that way we hope to say it (like we mean it) when we want to feel that way because we know we should, but don’t. I watched that exchange. It felt really nice.

Of course, that’s still rare. I still get angry and overreact. I still hover over something unacknowledged. I don’t know.

As with the Jung quote above, the Western psychological perspective on emotion is often that if felt and listened to, it will tell you something valuable. Lead you somewhere you need to go. This strikes me as crucial to our time because most people care so much more about their image than about how they feel. We’re afraid of our emotions because if felt and respected, they may lead us down a road that’s not acceptable, cool, or in line with what we thought we wanted, with what our ego wants. If we avoid this with some spiritual bypassing, we’re missing the point, and our lives.

Categories
emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites teaching what is yoga

neurotic thoughts. unmanageable emotions. yoga.

dsrage

This image, like those of the last few posts, is by Daryl Seitchik. She is awesome.

Comment from the last post:

I thought the practice would make me calmer, but it has actually brought a lot of my neurotic thoughts and unmanageable emotions (particularly rage) more to the surface. Luckily, it has also helped me learn to recognize these things as temporary illusions whose pain I must endure if I want to feel anything at all. One day I hope to have more control over them. But then, that desire to control may just be symptomatic of my neurotic nature. Better to simply endure.

Ok. There’s a lot to unpack here. My first response, in this post, will be general. The next will be a bit more personal.

There’s a lot of confusion about yoga and emotions, and I think it’s because many (most) American teachers and practitioners seem to endorse the idea that yoga is about love, peace, and light, and that yoga will heal our emotional pain because we often feel great after doing it.

The idea that anger, rage, sadness, etc. are bad, and love, joy, happiness, etc. are good is also prevalent. Yoga is spiritual and spiritual people are not angry. Om Shanti. Got that?

There is nothing wrong with anger and rage.

Anger and rage are feelings. If truly felt, rather than rashly acted on or repressed, they tend to move on just like happiness and joy do. This is rare though, as culturally, we’re not encouraged to feel our emotions but to identify with (if not repress) them.

This matters little from a yogic standpoint. Classical Yoga philosophy is dualistic. It is about getting feelings and rational thoughts, both elements of the material realm (prakṛti) out of the way in order to experience consciousness (puruṣa) and liberation. It is not about feeling joy.

Rage is no more an illusion than pleasant feelings, which are no more an illusion than our “rational” cognitive faculties that tell us boiling water will evaporate. Feelings and cognition are both material and temporary. From a Yogic standpoint, actually feeling one’s feelings rather than repressing or acting on them is a doorway to sensing their temporality. It is not about controlling or enduring pain. Not at all. Though it seems that misconception is the indirect lesson learned from the emphasis on love, light, and lifestyle pushed in most American yoga classes.

A little dry though, eh?

The Babarazzi had a timely and hilarious piece on anger last week. It’s a fantastic example of the idiotic ideas about yoga and anger perpetuated in American yoga culture. Yogalebrity Elena Brower, a teacher and life coach taken seriously (e.g. HuffPo) as a spokesperson for yoga, punishes herself for getting angry by drinking a can of Red Bull.

You are correct. It doesn’t make sense. Just read the article.

The Babarazzi does well: “Anger, like any feeling, is an opportunity to investigate the self and how we’ve consciously or subconsciously constructed this self and taught it to behave. See it, and other rebellious emotions, as doors, entry points, and opportunities. Don’t shun them. They’re ripe for investigation!”

Exactly. Helpful and true. I don’t, though, agree that anger is “just an irrational response to stimuli.” Interesting to label a feeling irrational, eh? It definitely preferences the Western philosophic concept (c/o the Greeks) that feelings are a barrier to clear, concise cognition. This rational-cognitive bias permeates our thought and culture. But classical Yoga philosophy doesn’t preference the rational, cognitive mind. It sees both feelings and cognition as material. The cognitive mind cannot cognize itself. It has to move beyond emotion and cognition. The How is explained in the Yoga Sutras.

I realize I’m being a little picky here, but I find the post-modern emphasis on the rational maddening. Look around you. Humans are not rational beings. Nor should we be, entirely. Our emotions inform us if we let them. Because I’m departing from Yoga in the traditional, classical sense, I’ll save this for next time. Til then.

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stretching the east : on backbends

Nastya-fish

So, backbends. I’m not good at them. But I need them. I like them. They feel good. They used to feel like a jolt of coffee, because I take so little breath into my upper chest in my regular breathing pattern. To stretch the chest is crazy energizing, especially if you tend to hunch forward. Now that I do them daily, all sorts of things come up.

The more you do yoga, the more subtly you feel your body. The more you feel what it has to say. What you have to say. That is the trickiest thing in writing and talking about yoga. It’s a non-verbal endeavor, truly. Putting words to it can be difficult, and for a thinker, can run into territories of faith. It’s really something you can’t understand unless you have done it, and done it in a way that is accessible for you (i.e. the teacher and style resonate). It’s like meditation. I really can’t take anyone’s theories or analyses of yoga or meditation (eg Zizek) seriously if they haven’t sat on their ass for at least a weekend (that is very very generous. I do not mean you know anything after a weekend, but you now have an idea bigger than theory). Until then, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just head talk. Disembodied ideas. Blah, blah, blah.

Right. Backbends. I’ll quote from two books I encountered last time. The first, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. I only read the small backbends sections in these books, so I have no recommendation for or against them.

Backbends are especially tremendous poses…because they encounter a sense of emotional openness and confidence. They gently open the chest, abdominal organs, pelvic region, and the whole front side of the body—the tender vulnerable side. The chest is where the heart chakra is located. Many of us are closed down and defended in that area, either from a lack of love or from past hurts. The pelvic region is where the sex chakra is located and many of us have contracted and pulled back in that area. We attempt to protect ourselves emotionally by closing down, pulling back, contracting our bodies, and thereby forming a protective shield or barrier. Closing down is not healthy, though. It’s part of what makes you feel more separate psychologically, and it constricts and restricts vital energy flow, which will inevitably cause you to feel more depressed than you would otherwise, more fearful, less vital, and less alive. Not to mention the fact that most of us sit in a somewhat cramped or collapsed position much of the day, anyway—either at a desk, while driving or eating, or in front of the TV–which not only impairs the functioning of the lungs and abdominal organs but causes the spinal vertebrae to push backward out of healthy alignment.

Backbends open these closed areas, thereby releasing blocked energy while simultaneously building the strength needed to stay open. Strong back muscles, developed with backbends, make it easy to sit and stand erect all day long, so you are alert and comfortable more of the time. Backbends give you energy because they release tension and blocked energy in your chest and pelvic regions as well as through the ankles, knees, quadriceps, abdominal organs, upper back, neck, shoulders, and arms. They are rejuvenating. They encourage youthfulness by keeping the spine supple.

(Schiffmann, pp. 199-200)

I appreciate his mention of the pelvis here, which is absent from most discussions of backbending, but hugely involved. The more intense backbends, in fact, slam my major areas of stress. The “sex chakra” analysis is unfortunately simplistic. The root chakra is located in the pelvis as well, and there are all sorts of reasons one might hold in the psoas and pelvic region. When I talked to my Rolfer about my thoracic spine and kyphosis, she went straight to work on my right psoas, where I tend to hold, to release by back. “Whoa. Weird,” I thought.

We need to be careful about reducing matters to the “heart” and “sex” chakras. Though, sure, trouble in the second might well lead to imbalance in the fourth, and vice verse. Though linking sex and the heart almost seems far fetched in the postmodern era. [Tears.]

The other book with some interesting insight was Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow:

As part of their sunrise practice the ancient yogis called their backward bending “stretching the east.” [They did?] Backward bends stretch and strengthen the front portion of the torso, the shoulder and pelvic girdles, and the legs. They stretch and strengthen the iliopsoas muscles, which lay deep under the anterior musculature of the abdomen and pelvis and bind the legs to the spine; the diaphragm and the intercostals, which are the primary musculature of respiration; the anterior muscles, which bind the shoulder girdle to the spine; and the anterior muscles of the legs. In addition, they strengthen the superficial and deep muscles of the back, which contract as we bend backward; strengthen the posterior muscles of the shoulder girdle; stretch the abdominal organs, relieving the visceral compression; gently compress the kidney/adrenal area, stimulating its function; and stretch the anterior muscles of the neck and throat, including the area of the thyroid and thymus glands.

(Kraftsow, pp. 49-50)

Again, mention of the psoas/pelvis and a nice anatomical view of backbending efforts. It’s weakened by the first line, though, as there’s zero evidence that ancient yogis had a sunrise practice or that they backbended. In fact, only a few backbends (e.g. dhanurasana) are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, which, circa 15 C.E., is hardly ancient. Kraftsow studied with T.K.V. Desikachar, and perhaps that’s where he got his mythology. Regardless, it’s incorrect. Yes, the front body is east and back body west. But it’s quite a stretch to bring the ancient yogis daily regimens into the argument, stated as fact. We really have no idea.

I’m rambling a bit here, largely as a process of investigating something. My chest and spine feel locked into place and I’d like them not to be. Talk about the heart chakra, closing down, vulnerability is interesting but not that helpful. I’ve spent time in my body and mind. I know that. Telling someone to open isn’t an open sesame. And even if you are massaged open, if the same mental and behavioral patterns haven’t shifted, the body will go straight back to where it was.

We can all tell sad stories of difficulties and loss. These stories can be liberating or (more usually) just another trap and excuse. The liberation, I gather, comes from experiencing the true emotion behind the tales, rather than a disassociated dramatown plea for attention that wasn’t received when we needed it. But true emotions can be madly elusive, having been avoided and ignored for so many years.

Thus far, the breath has been the most helpful. Luckily, the chest is somewhere I can actually breath into directly (unlike, say, my hip). Taking time to really breath, gently, into the top of my lungs, when I’m practicing, and sitting, and writing.

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non-cheesy yoga = awesome

Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Yoga

bod050Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the experience of refined breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:

One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.

(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)

This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.

A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:

When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.

(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)

Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.

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meeting resistance on and off the mat

and some books I’ve been reading have me asking why you do yoga. I know why I do it, and why I teach it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching to your needs.

The other night, in a last class of the semester, I asked students what they wanted from yoga. If they came to class as a happy bubble from the outside stresses of life. Eyes got big and heads nodded, almost as if to say, “Please don’t ask more of us. Please don’t ask more.” And for good reason, as exams and finals and graduations are upon us. I remember the stresses of grad school and just trying to maintain. And honestly, this is fine. To feel good for a few hours of your week, to forget all the headaches that will just change into a different stress in a week or a month or a season, is a wonderful thing.

But yoga can be much, much more. It can allow you the space to shift your attention from an external experience of self—how you look, how you’re performing in school or work, what your friends/partner/community thinks of you—to an internal experience of self. How you feel. What your thoughts are. How your thoughts shift. How your muscles feel. How all of this constantly changes.

As a culture, we build up tremendous habits against internal awareness because frankly, we don’t feel that great much of the time. The pressures we take on in modern life to keep up and impress require that we treat ourselves like robots. But we’re not. We aren’t a mechanical airbrushed consumer in a glossy ad. And that’s a good thing. But we often forget that, and how to relate to anything else. Yoga shifts this, which is why it can feel so good.

Most people probably do yoga for this reason. Exercise and a time out. This works, especially as maintenance a few times a week. Many people sense there is more to yoga, but don’t really have the time or need to pursue what that is. And that is a great and healthy thing. Others get hooked and begin to practice more, or look into the other dimensions of yoga. Also great.

There comes a point in a serious practitioner’s practice, and maybe for less dedicated yogis as well, that yoga will make you feel worse. That may or may not be totally conscious. You might start to dislike your teacher, people you practice with, or the style of yoga you recently raved about. You might find it impossible to get to the class. You’ll start missing practices. Or drift away from the mat for long periods of time. But this is when it is most crucial to get to your mat. Your yoga is starting to work on a deep level. It’s when you start to see things you don’t want to see. If you want to shift your incessant patterns, you need to see. But your ego and defense mechanisms resist this. Hate this. Suddenly those patterns seem not so bad. Comfortable. Reasonable. Much better the devil you know, eh?

20130425-NY_April-106

When I first left a job I disliked to do work I love, I was shocked to find my resistance and procrastination was just as strong for things that I love as those that I don’t. Maybe stronger. It can be so hard to get to the mat, or sit down, or stand up and just do the work. Why? Because we like the comfort of where we are a little more than we’re willing to admit?

I could give you a long list of cliches to help you fight resistance, but honestly, nothing will get you there but discipline and an iron commitment. Yes, routine helps. A support system helps. A great teacher helps. But if you are patterned to distrust, the best sangha (community), routine or teacher in the world won’t stop you from mounting a case against them if that’s how you’ve programed things. You know this by experiences past.

Go and meet the hate. Get up and make the phone call. Sit down to your research. Start sewing the dress. Face the terror of doing whatever it is you so long to do. Yoga can help you do this—but you’ll begin to resist the yoga, too. Just keep doing it. Because when you do, you see what’s going on. It is slow and painful and terrifying, but you have begun to develop the tools to work with that. You’ve started to make shifts consciously and unconsciously. Do anything but give in to the devil you know. You’re closer than you think.

This is why I don’t advocate shiny, happy yoga. I wince at the idea of yoga as a happy bubble time that will keep you comfortable enough, when it can be the vehicle for profound change. But I do understand that there’s great value in just feeling good for a few hours a week. Honestly, I’m happy to be a part of that too.

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the thing about gurus: a kumaré review

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

identGandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!” from his friends.

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.

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emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) what is yoga

yoga and the true non-self?

What can you feel? I practice yoga because it helps me feel, which is something I’d trained myself to avoid. It’s an internal exploration that is unspeakably beautiful, and precious few teachers convey this. (Do I? Probably not well.) It’s partly because not many are looking for an internal practice, which means that sticking with an internal focus requires gumption, and partly because it takes far more than language to convey. And perhaps it has never been the point of the practice. Feeling in its raw form essentially alerts us to what we need and don’t need so that we can use our reason accordingly. But many of us are so threatened by our feelings that we repress them entirely. Yoga can help us to sense them again.

Instead, the trend is to use yoga to numb and discipline ourselves. The ancient Yoga Sutras, a non-physical, philosophic text which had limited relationship to physical practice until the 16-19th centuries, when they were slowly integrated, is commonly used by teachers to guide practitioners toward the “true self.” As I’ve noted before, there’s much confusion around this. It is not unusual for an “expert” on the Sutras to spend an hour lecturing about the non-self, and then wrap up his hour with, “Well, I hope you can see that this philosophy provides us with the tools we need to be our true selves.”btke

Huh? Aside from confusion around what in fact a “self” is, traditionally, yoga (in any of its forms) was never about finding the self, but obliterating it, transcending the self to be one with God. Or emptiness. This search for the self via yoga is a distinctly modern endeavor. That we imagine ourselves to be one with the ancients by using the Sutras essentially as a self-help method is bizarre. But if it works for you, excellent. Go with it. The idea that American yoga is a good-for-you-ancient-physical-philosophical practice is a pop-culture norm, propounded by the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Perhaps the most common part of the Sutras expounded upon in American yoga studios are the Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, moral precepts that read much like the Judeo-Christian commandments deeply embedded in Western Culture. We might take a look at the history of the last 2000 years and ask if these precepts have served us. If we find they haven’t, why are we so quick to snatch them from another tradition, particularly when that tradition aims to obliterate the self? Aside from a special few, this is not what we’re after at all.

On the importance of attachments and ego

In the last few years, uninspired by the teachings and praxis in our yoga communities, and frustrated by the deep push back against self-awareness that permeates both yoga culture and American culture at large (I’d argue that American therapeutic culture is about creating the appearance of a “happy” self, generally at the expense of difficult or deep self awareness, though I realize this is debatable), I’ve been exploring ideas of the self in European philosophy and psychology. Philosophers the world around (East and West) often hint there is no actual solid, unchanging entity we can call self, and neuroscientists often agree. Evan Thompson, a philosopher known for his work on cognitive science and Buddhism, said in an interview: “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.”

This supports what I’ve come to believe and work with: humans identify as selves. How do we make the best of this? How do we cultivate a healthy, flexible ego that allows us to operate in the world rather than perpetually escape into fantasy?

Let’s say a larger oneness connects us all, if only in that we all share a planet. As developmental psychology posits (psychological ideas are deeply embedded in American culture, so if you’ve grown up here, they impact you whether you endorse a ‘psychological worldview’ or not), as infants, slowly we learn that others are other, separate from us, and with the help of secure attachments to these others, we develop an ego that mitigates our otherness and provides us with a healthy sense of self that helps us relate as separate beings. There is no ego without the other, no me without you. We develop our selves in relationship to the people and culture around us. It is a deluded, neo-liberal fantasy to imagine ourselves to be perfectly independent—but a fantasy that the popular imagination endorses. As humans, we are never fully separate, nor are we never fully merged into oneness (partially, sometimes, but not fully). Many have noted, from Foucault to Ehrenreich, that such a limit experience would blow out our nervous system. This, as I understand it, is where the mad tend to dwell, a little further into the realm of oneness than society deems acceptable. A little blown out.

This is why non-self and non-attachment practices can be slippery for those who didn’t have easy beginnings, with safe, secure attachments. Some estimates suggest that 50% of the American population are not able to create secure attachments. Children who lack safe, healthy attachments often develop very rigid, defensive egos required for self-protection and survival, rather than flexible, healthy egos that allow us to take in and negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Rigid egos are so heavy that we often seek the divine, or spiritual release, or limit experience to escape them, if only momentarily, until the cage comes back down. Neither scenarios are effective in dealing with the day to day, or with putting one’s self out there in all the ways that tend to make humans feel happy and fulfilled: connecting with others, creating, sharing, giving, receiving.

New agers talk about human fluidity and oneness, arguing we need to work back to it. While most of us are far more boundaried and defended than necessary, the urge toward a total fluidity and unboundaried existence is ridiculous. Unless you’ve moved to a cave and renounced world and self alike, you cannot exist without boundaries and the ego and attachments that provide them.

At a meditation retreat awhile back, that guy dominated the discussion, a thirty-something determined to show off what he thought he knew, rather than dialogue. He launched into a story about a relationship he fast became bored with (or afraid of), and when he decided to end it, he told her (and us, as a punch line), “You know, there’s one thing that you can count on, and that’s change!”

Awesome. Buddhist platitudes in the service of avoiding close relationship. Just what we need. I’d wager that this was not change for him at all, but quite likely his habitual, uninformed reaction to intimacy. It’s happened 10, 20, 30 times, and without some serious intervention on his part, will keep on in that vein. And he’s justifying it in terms of spiritual non-attachment? Lordy. This spiritual bypass is sadly common, and these endless platitudes create the fabric of the pseudo-self-awareness of the yoga community.