Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feeding the "Me" Beast: Yoga and Body Harming

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.


Algernon said...

Brown's post is fascinating, and your commentary hits it right on, I think: lust for achievement leading to suffering, samsara dressed up in yoga clothes. I'm struck by the image of him looking at his students and seeing the suffering in their faces, only for them to tell him after the class how *grrrreeeat* it was. Disconnection was not the point, was it?

Eco Yogini said...

I agree wholeheartedly. A fantastic observation. Thank you. This needs to be discussed more openly.

Robyn said...

Isn't greed the in the #1 position of the Three Poisons for a good reason? There is a lot of greed in wanting to perfect some of those difficult asana-s (ask me how I know!). It is just one more form of consumption.

On the other hand, when I think about what I have ultimately learned from injuries and even from working through difficult postures...such activity isn't completely worthless. But in our culture - so full of ambitions and busyness - I think we need more tamas to balance our rajas (or most of us probably could use that).

I too have looked out at my students and been surprised to see such serious faces, but I think some of it is simply that they are actually concentrating on what is happening inside. I am not sure it is all disconnect. Lots of people have never brought awareness to any part of their body - ever. It is kind of a revolution and revelation. Hard to know from an expression what is really happening.

Anonymous said...

Disconnect is what sells well in New York City right now, unfortunately. So unlike class I took in the 90's.

I have a conclusion to state. Just because I am paying for a yoga class, does not mean I came for the kick-butt "workout". I could do that to myself at home for free (even having contracted a mild case of costochondritis injury doing so), because I have infused my primarily-at-home yoga practice with loads of accessible corework ... In pilates, I am a little more Type-A than I am in my yoga ...

But it had been a New York City area class where they did not listen to my complaints about intensity and convinced me that I was soft and undisciplined, that engendered as intense of a home practice that I'd had until that unpredicted injury. I am 57 years old, by the way--and I didn't want to be shunted to the (to me insulting) Gentle Yoga class.

Mumon K said...

I'll have more to say on this later, but in short, it's sad to see such experiences.

Nathan said...

Robyn: "too have looked out at my students and been surprised to see such serious faces, but I think some of it is simply that they are actually concentrating on what is happening inside. I am not sure it is all disconnect." Totally true. Good point. I've also seen that, especially when I taught my ESL students. (I'm always glad to hear your take on these kind of posts. Keeps me on my toes :)

Tina, I'm sorry to hear of what you went through. I can imagine others have had your experience. I've seen teachers speak about that kind of abuse from studio owners and other teachers as well. It doesn't make any sense to me in terms of practice.

Mumon K said...

Well, I knew it'd be a long response, but here's my response.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Nathan.

May all fine teachers with shreds of sanity.

Anonymous said...

The blog that you reference in Non-Violence, Laughter, Budo, and Hypocrisy states about Ken Wilber and the video demonstration of deep meditation and witnessing:

"Wilber may say he doesn’t intend people to take it this way. But that would be disingenuous. He knows full well people are going to take it this way. The message my commenter got is, 'Ken Wilber is a better meditator than Brad Warner.' It’s the kind of message I’m sure most people take away from Wilber’s various demonstrations of power."

"If meditation is a competition, I don’t want to play that game. But it’s not. So I meditate."

What Ken Wilber states as a more pedestrian form of meditation than his ... reaching alpha and theta states ... worked for ME .. and still does ...