In an engaging post over at the ID project blog, yoga teacher J. Brown writes the following:
I remember a particular occasion when I was teaching one of my trademark power vinyasa classes. I was barking out my well prepared sequence and, instead of my usual attention to everyone’s alignment, I happened to be noticing the facial expressions of the people in my class.
They looked miserable. They were filled with struggle and strain, just doing their best to get through and not enjoying themselves much in the process. There was a distinct lack of joy.
Afterwards, several students came up to thank me and tell me how great the class was. It made me feel uncomfortable. Walking home, I kept thinking: “What am I doing?”
Fact is, I was proficient in the practice I was teaching but it was not really helping me feel well. I had a lot of chronic pain that I rarely admitted to, even to myself. I was convinced it meant “opening.” Shortly thereafter, I blew my knee out doing Baddhakonasana with a belt and an assist. For all my diligent studies and abilities, super yogi couldn’t walk.
Around that same time, a friend of mine attended a large yoga event in NYC with a venerable teacher, considered to be a living “master.” She was one of a very small percentage of the 600 participants to have the guru assist her in one of her poses, only to have her hamstring connector popped at his forceful hand. I remember seeing her several days later, she was still in considerable pain.
Experiences like this have often left me feeling horribly disenchanted with the yoga community. The issue of overly forceful assists aside, how can yoga teachers who espouse ahimsa not be held accountable for harm done under their auspices?
These are great examples of what happens when, in my opinion, achievement driven Americans are lead by more achievement driven Americans. Or teachers from other nations who go along with that achievement drive. As I have begun to do short bits of teaching yoga classes, and have had more extensive conversations with a few mentors and classmates, the issues around ahimsa (non-violence) to the body have become very bright for me. And I can't help but see the link between our consumer culture and the kinds of power yoga classes where people blow out knees, feel no joy, and are generally disconnected from their body, mind, and "spirit."
Instead of learning to incorporate the depth of yogic teachings and practices that undermine the desire to achieve, and to do things "perfectly," many teachers and studios choose (sometimes unconsciously) to run classes and programs that end up feeding the "me" beast. Obviously, some of this has to do with the plethora of poorly training teachers who barely had been practicing before they got the missionary yoga bug. And some of it is the insidiousness of capitalism worming its way too deeply into the decisions people make around structuring their classes and yoga organizations. But lately, I think this really stems back to that disconnect from the mind/body, from our buddha-nature if you will.
This disconnect or separation manifests individually and collectively, and thus for most of us, it takes both individual practice and collective practice to reconnect. Collective practice with the intention to reconnect, to see through the separation narratives that keep us from feeling the pulsing heart, the moving blood, the energy flowing through us moment after moment. It's not enough to just practice together, because if the majority of folks are just plugging into "disconnected narratives," then that's what will mostly be what comes out.
The body is a vehicle for enlightenment, but it also contains for us all the gunk we've collected over the years that runs counter to awakening. We often "move on" from the trauma of the past intellectually, only to discover months or years later a dull ache or nagging tension in the body that just won't go away. This is disconnect manifest on an individual level.
Entire communities can manifest this energetically, as J. Brown's class above demonstrated. Believing in a "no pain, no gain" kind of motto, class after class, he and his students chased after some elusive goal they thought could only be achieved by powering through and overriding every last signal their bodies were giving.
I've seen this in Zen communities as well, where students have "powered" themselves to sit endless hours of zazen, to the point where their minds are burned out from lack of sleep, and their bodies are riddled with chronic aches, pains, and injuries. In both Zen and yoga, there are teachings about building enough heat to burn through the mental blockages that keep us disconnected from our selves. And yet, I have come to believe that humans have struggled throughout history to find a balance between heat building and relaxing/nurturing. I frequently ponder the Buddha's breakdown after years of austere practices, and the simple, but very powerful return he made into what I would call balance. Just the simple acts of eating and drinking, of taking basic care of the body, that appear in the old Buddhist texts are reminders that racing towards enlightenment, or some other goal, isn't what this work is about.
It's fascinating to me to see that yoga's expression here in the U.S. has been so imbalanced towards the physical postures, and yet at the same time, there is such obvious disconnections between many practitioners and their own bodies. The right treatments are there, but it seems that the prescription too often has been written wrong, or illegible.