If you tend to slip on mats and are not an ashtangi or doing jump-throughs, you might prefer the jade yoga mat, which is extremely grippy (so much so you can get caught on it and hurt yourself if you are just learning to jump through). These mats wear through fairly quickly, down to a mesh, but are good while they last.
If you want yoga blocks for class, these are good (I use them).
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.
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.
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.
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?
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
Yoga asanas are generally broken down into categories: standing poses, backbends, forward bends, twists, and so on. Backbends are poses in which the spine is extended. Spinal extension is the antithesis of the laptop hunch we’ve managed to perfect, which is but one reason they can be so hard.
Somewhat lost in all the online info on backbends (opening! exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!), I walked to the bookstore. I regularly consult Light on Yoga and Yoga: A Gem for Women by the Iyengars, but I wouldn’t mind having a few more solid books on asana. Not just the anatomy and alignment, but the energy around them. It can be hard to judge yoga books online.
Out of the 250+ books on yoga (many were multiple copies), I found only 7 worth browsing. My favorite books on yoga were not even there. Only 3 had something to say about backbends. Though the editing was a little tighter, they didn’t really offer anything I hadn’t read online. Exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!
This is totally true, no doubt. Posture and pelvis are two that I don’t see mentioned often, and think of immediately, especially in my own backbending practice.
It’s not simply lazy posture that makes us curl over ourselves. Kyphosis can be a result of protecting the heart. A turtling attempt at body armor. We all hold and protect ourselves in different ways, and this is one of mine. And it’s pretty deeply held. Unlike my cranky hamstrings, which I feel groaning in stretch, my upper back is so locked into place that I don’t feel it stretch or move.
I now practice backbends daily, but years back it was more sporadic. When I studied with Genny, one week a month was (and still is, I imagine), dedicated to backbending. These were my favorites. After these classes I felt like a sprite. Awake. Happy.
Just wait, it gets happier still. I’m speaking about energetic experiences in the body, and the felt experience that comes with them. While some of this sort of thing has been studied scientifically, it’s generally frowned on by academic communities. As Christopher Lasch said back in the 70s, “Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of minutiae” (not that he would have approved of this endeavor. But never mind). There are many reasons for this. One being that there isn’t much economic gain in people feeling good, unless a drug is involved. In pomo America, our God Science is as economically motivated as any other. Another reason: the Descartian insistence on rationalism and the mind-body split. What is missed here is that other, non-verbal experiences and ways of knowing do not preclude rationality. They enhance it.
So, after my backbending class at Genny’s, I waited for the train at the West 4th Street station in the Village. It was a bit past rush hour, busy but not crowded. While I waited for an express, a local train came in. Then shrieks of terror. I turned to see a man of about 55 had fallen while getting onto the train. There was a wide gap between the platform and train, and one leg was stuck in it. His other leg was up on the platform, and upper body as well. He made a horrible barking type sound, obviously in total shock.
I looked around. Everyone just stood staring. Without thinking, I went over to the man and put my body against the door so it couldn’t close and the train wouldn’t move. I put my arms around the man but he was too heavy for me to pull up, and his awkward split rendered him totally immobile. His pants were stuck in the wheels. It was horrifying. I held his torso against me and said over and over, breathe, just breathe, it will be okay. The train won’t move. We’ll get you out.
That set people into motion. Someone in the car asked me if he should pull the emergency break (“Yes!”) and then two men came over and lifted the man out. He disappeared into the train, refusing further help. I realized then that everyone on the platform had crowded around, staring. A conductor finally came by, cursing the fool who pulled the emergency brake, unaware of the entire episode.
I walked back to the other side of the platform, shaken, in disbelief. That man’s leg was caught up in the wheels of the train. It could have been grisly. I knew, was 100% sure, that the only reason I had the presence to help him was my state after Genny’s backbending class. Maybe I’d have helped another time, but maybe not. I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but that my thoughts would have interfered.
Is 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.
Many yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.
We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):
Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
Eat as simply and locally as possible.
That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.
While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)
This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.
Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.
Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.
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?
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.
The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.
Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.
There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”
Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.
While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya,K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.
There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”
I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahmin (highest) class alone.
If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.
Sweeney also argues:
In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.
Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.
Sweeney finds it:
…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga. Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.
As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.
And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:
I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.
So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.
This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.
If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga. I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.
The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.
It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.
I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:
It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.
Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.