Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Yoga and its Discontents

Hand's up if you hate a particular yoga pose? Seriously, anyone who does it enough will find a pose or two that drive them batty. I'm not so keen on headstand, mostly because I'm afraid of screwing up my neck. Over at Eco Yogini yesterday, there was a bit of a hate fest on a favorite pose of mine: corpse pose or savasana.

Now, the original post makes some good points about arising anxiety during the pose, and also pain in her sacral area. She didn't seem to be aware of the various modifications that you can do for corpse pose, but many of the comments that followed offered modifications for her.

What bothered me, though, was the level of "me, myself, and mine" focus that flowed through the comments on this post.

The first comment begins:

girlfriend, remind yourself that yoga practice is about YOU and no one else! your booty hurt? sit up and chill in your own way! your back hurt? do what you gotta do! the important thing is that you already understand the intention of the pose. you don't need to ask permission to do what makes you comfortable, and if your yoga teacher has the nerve to tell you to do something else, tell her/him they can kiss your sacrum, ahahaha

Fun sass, but last I checked yoga or any spiritual practice isn't about "what makes you comfortable." Of course, if you turn it into being about exercise, then "chill(ing) in your own way" probably makes sense, even if it's in the middle of a class full of others.

A few comments down, there is one that appears right on when you first read it, but then that thread of "self-focus" comes through.

There are actually lots of people who can't do that in a lying flat position. So, try lying on your side (which is actually what we learned in YTT to recommend for pregnant women - curled on the left side with pillows as needed). Or, try bending your knees to take stress out of your lower back. Or, just sit up and meditate like you want to. Seriously, this is the one pose that you can pretty much guarantee that NOBODY is watching - cause they all have their eyes closed!

I totally agree that some people can't do certain poses, even ones that look easy to the rest of us. A friend of mine has been working in yoga classes for paralyzed folks, and what they do versus what the rest of us do is clearly a different experience. And yet, when I read this comment a second time, I thought "no where in here is anything about the class teacher." It's as if there isn't a teacher even, or at least, what the teacher has to say or offer really doesn't matter much. I can't imagine just getting up and starting to do kinhin during group zazen because "no one is watching," but I suppose the way people approach yoga and Buddhist practice is different in some ways.

A few comments after this is the following gem: "ha ha ha - this was a reason why I don't do yoga classes, I hate being told to lay down and relax." At least the writer is honest and not attending classes where she wants it to be her way all the time.

And here's one last comment worth the price of admission:

This drives me batty!

The fact that the teacher doesn't say, "Come to savasana or any relaxation pose or sitting pose that YOUR BODY NEEDS RIGHT NOW..."

Or some such thing. Those are the words I use and I can't imagine the point of yoga if we aren't to teach students to LISTEN to their OWN bodies. OYE.

YOU shouldn't have to ask or tell the teacher; they should know.

Apparently, yoga teachers are now clairvoyants who can see the thoughts and struggles of every last student that arrives in their classes.

Thankfully, someone finally makes what to me felt like an obvious point by saying "Have you talked to your teacher about what's going on for you in savasana? They might not have any idea that you are having these huge reaction to the pose."

It seems to me that one of the main reasons for attending yoga classes, or working with any teacher, is that you're aware that this person might be able to teach you something. That they might have learned something about life that could help you. And even though it ultimately comes back to you, and is about "your practice," or "your life," if you haven't learned the scales, you can't play much music. Right?

If you read through the entire thread of comments, you'll see there are some wonderful insights from people who are probably practicing yoga sincerely, and with depth. I've read the blogs of a few of these folks, including Eco Yogini, and it's clear that they aren't just out for nice bit of exercise and a tight bod.

However, with all the popularity, commercialization, and competition amongst studios to get students in the doors, I think a hell of a lot gets compromised in the yoga world overall. This doesn't mean there aren't wise teachers grounded in the spiritual teachings out there - I've studied with four excellent teachers over the years. Nor does it mean that most yoga students are "all about the fluff" - I've met plenty who are sincere, dedicated, and becoming wise in their own right.

And yet, this post isn't unique at all: there are tons of posts bemoaning the many problems with yoga "in the west." So, something is certainly amiss, don't you think?

I don't have any answers, and for the most part, all I can do is do my own yoga practice as best as I can. And write a post like this once in awhile, just to keep the issue fresh in people's minds.


Petteri Sulonen said...

People do yoga in lots of ways, for lots of reasons. I think that for 99% of people who do yoga, it's not fundamentally different from any other form of exercise, even if it often comes with a sprinkling of Eastern spirituality for taste. I'm solidly in that 99%—I do a little bit of sort-of-yoga for flexibility and to get aches out of my back. It's not any more (or less!) a spiritual practice than riding my bike or going to the gym.

I usually follow it up with zazen, but, for me, the only connection between the two is that it's way easier to get into quarter-lotus (or, twice now, half-lotus) than without it, which is nice. Zazen is different.

I think I'm picking up a bit of resentment with perhaps a smidgen of superiority from you at people who treat yoga as gym. Why is that, I wonder?

Nathan said...


"I think I'm picking up a bit of resentment with perhaps a smidgen of superiority from you at people who treat yoga as gym. Why is that, I wonder?"

What's interesting to me is that there are endless debates going on about Buddhist practice right now. We are having them in my own zen center. I see them online. I've even heard people in coffee shops debating what Buddhist practice should look like.

And many people are sincerely concerned about stripping away too much of what's been handed down in order to make things easier or more acceptable. These are important discussions.

Your 99% figure is not my experience. Yes, I'd say the majority probably enter yoga for exercise or health related purposes, but it sure isn't only 1% that are approaching yoga as a spiritual discipline.

Am I displaying "superiority" in my comments? Perhaps.

Resentful? Probably not.

But yoga is a spiritual practice and always has been. It's only been in the past half century, maybe century at most, that people have been stripping it down to a health program.

I'm not against people using yoga poses solely as a health tool, but doing yoga poses for health doesn't mean you are a yogini. I think this is where the rub is for me. People who are walking around, saying namaste, calling themselves yoginis, and then when it gets down to it, it's all about exercise and looking good.

Also, people seem to forget, or never learned, that lotus pose and all it's variations came from yoga. Yoga and Buddhism are spiritual cousins, and when you look at some of the issues playing out in the modern practice of both, there are many similarities.


Robyn said...

I read recently (in a yoga blog that I enjoy although she practices a different kind than I do) about a teacher who deliberately did not encourage students to find their own place, comfort-zone, etc. He believed yoga was actually about finding the edge, not letting yourself be comfortable. Sound familiar?

Our whole society is about finding our comfort zone to the detriment of the environment and other people, animals. Yoga isn't that.

I find the best mix is working at home, finding out things for myself and then working with a teacher to deepen that knowledge. Sound familiar?

Yes, I thought so. : )

Petteri Sulonen said...

I think the meaning of 'yoga' has shifted. It most certainly originated as a spiritual practice, and continues to be that in India; some Westerners also aspire to practice it that way, and a few Westerners actually do so seriously. If you're simply resentful of the labels—someone who treats yoga as a form of gymnastics branding herself a yogini—then, yeah, I can understand it... although I would point out that that just makes it a disagreement about semantics, which is something I've always found to be boring and futile.

However, the fact remains that yoga is a very good physical practice, and many people who treat it that way take it very seriously, and become very good at it. I don't think you're being fair to them by implicitly treating that as "lesser." It's just different, with different purposes and, usually, different names. Yoga in America is not, generally speaking, yoga in India. I don't see anything wrong with that.

(Oh, and, purely personally, "namaste" and "gassho" and "metta" and "hands folded" etc. sprinkled into conversation, or the zendo newsletter, for that matter, irritates me no end. It feels forced and phony and poser-y. The only place I use "namaste" is when dropping by my rather nice local Nepalese eatery, where it's just Nepali for "hello.")

Nathan said...

I guess it's interesting that it's ok for people to debate the various changes/shifts occurring in Buddhism, and yet when it comes to yoga, either people don't care (which has mostly been my experience), or any comments questioning changes to yoga is considered elitist. It's very curious to me.

Sara said...

I enjoyed Eco-Yogini's post and the discussion it created. Of course since Restorative Yoga is my thing I think Savasana is most important. But I also have discomfort laying in Savasana so I encourage my students to modify the pose or take another pose as their final resting position. The pose itself doesn't really matter. What's important is the quiet time, stilling the mind, focusing on the breath and letting go of doing. Practicing bringing ease into our lives through resting at the end of class is a practice of remembering to take time between all aspects of our life. We practice Savasana so we remember to take a break and a breath before we jump from one activity to another. Thanks for the discussion.