Friday, November 4, 2011

Yoga Teacher Fired for Wanting to Teach Yoga

Here is an example of the challenges that yoga teachers committed to the full path can face in North American studios:

Last night, I was fired from my job at Black Swan Yoga for a fundamental difference of opinion. I was ambushed, lured there to discuss my "schedule" and then tag-teamed by a pair with a yoga sutra tattooed on one and a chakra tattooed on the other. (Oh, the irony!) Together, they released me from my duties for standing by my published opinion that asana exists independent of the yoga. I say intention matters. Apparently, they disagree.

One needn't look far to find the basis of my argument. It's right there in the second sutra: "Yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of the mind (Yoga Sutra I.2)." Beyond that, I know it from experience. I have, many times in my life, practiced asana without the yoga to address discomfort in the body. I think it's safe to say I'm not the only one. Asana is what draws people to the yoga, asana prepares the mind; as my teacher says, "asana makes the ground fertile" for the real yoga to take place, but asana in itself, without the breath, without the meditation, is just exercise. Just gymnastics.

I can imagine myself in her shoes, and no doubt, this blog is littered with posts critical of "exercise yoga," capitalistic studio models, and the lack of meditation practice amongst North American yoga students. Odds are, if a yoga studio was focused on having teachers who all agree on "philosophy," they either wouldn't hire me, or would can me as soon as they found the link to DH.

What I found interesting, though, was how the teacher above spoke of asana (postures). She specifically argues that asana practice, "without the breath, without the meditation, is just exercise."

I tend to agree. So often, we "westerners" separate body and mind practices, even when we aren't deliberately trying to. This particular teacher seems to have a unified vision - especially if you read the rest of her post. Many others don't, and either keep the meditative limbs of yoga separate from the asana, or simply cut them off all together, in the manner that Black Swan Yoga apparently does. Even well respected teachers like Iyengar argue in favor of a focus on asana and pranayama practice - for years sometimes - before students should dive into meditation. In other words, they are practiced separately - until one is "ready," and then they are practiced together. Having read enough of Iyengar's writings, I'm not clear if this is a fixed position he holds, but it's something I have seen in repeated articles and books by him.

The body-mind practice split is something that most spiritual/religious traditions face, in part due to human ambivalence towards our place on the planet. A strand of hatred/aversion toward, or disassociation from, the material manifestations on earth can probably be found in most ancient spiritual traditions, including yoga. Add upon that the long standing mind-body split found in Western philosophy, which has influenced how we view our relationship with/to our planet, and you have a heap of trouble.

In terms of this discussion, that "trouble" manifests through our uneasy relationship with our own bodies. On the one hand, the worship of the "young, strong, and healthy body" that drives many yoga classes, even those with a holistic, spiritual approach. On another hand, the fear/shame/hatred of bodies that "don't hold together," get sick, and eventually die. I'd argue that this second set of issues also drives much of yoga practice in North America, in synergy with that worship mentality.

Now, it's really the case that these kinds of struggles are the fodder of spiritual life. So, in some ways, it's a given that this kind of stuff is going to show up. However, the way I see it, a lot of this stuff remains either unconscious or is treated solely in terms of individual practitioners. You hear stories about yogis with extreme eating disorders for example, but how often are those extremes linked together with the broader "body issues" I mention in the previous paragraph? And then moved from an individual level to a community of practitioners level? In other words, considering both the possibility that yoga studios and classes are filled with people who have various forms of mind-body separation, and that the ways in which yoga practice is being marketed and taught might be either maintaining, or even increasing in some cases, those mind-body separations.

That's a lot to chew on, so I'll stop there for now. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts or other comments.


Petteri Sulonen said...

Only one comment with an article I otherwise sympathize with. This, because IMO it reveals a particular bias of many yoga folk (and Buddhist folk etc.) as well. A phrase.

"Just" exercise.

As I think I've mentioned here before, I don't like gymnastics masquerading as spirituality either.

I do, however, like gymnastics as gymnastics, and asana is some fine gymnastics. Many—most?—people are only interested in gymnastics, and getting 'spirituality' as an unwanted extra will shut the door on them. That's not good. And who knows, maybe some of those would, after some years of gymnastics, discover that maybe they could give the rest of it a crack too. Took my mother about 25 years of "just" gymnastics to get to that point, but she eventually did—and she would never, ever have done so had her first yoga teachers taught anything other than asana.

I suppose that kinda puts me in the same camp with Iyengar—asana and pranayama for everybody, meditation only for those who are so inclined, once they're ready for it. Which might be anything between immediately and never in this lifetime.

IOW, I think the problem is really a lack of clarity about what's being taught: body practice or mind practice, or both integrated. They're all called "yoga," although they have fundamentally different goals. This yoga aims for good bodily health and physical well-being, that yoga aims for liberation. Confusing.

Megan Walker said...

Hi Nathan - Thanks for the link and I'm glad my post could inspire more discussion. In response to Petteri's comment, I will just say that he/she should read the rest of my post to find that I completely agree. Exercise and gymnastics are great, and that's essentially where the past goes immediately after Nathan stops quoting. There's nothing wrong with exercise in the form of asana. Just don't call it yoga.

Cowgirl Yogi said...

i know the studio and teacher in question. THIS IS NOT WHY SHE WAS FIRED. she was fired becasue she publicly insulted her studio, her boss and her students. and then she deleted the comments she was fired for from her blog before reposting. megan, i love you, i am so sorry you were fired, and that you are hurt. i wish you nothing but the best.
with much love and light,
leigh fisher, proud black swan YOGA teacher.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Megan: I went and read it. Yes, we do agree... about everything but a little difference regarding semantics, perhaps.

From where I'm at, the meaning of "yoga" in the English language has already shifted so far that in most people's minds it's synonymous with "asana."

I dislike fights about semantics. Therefore, I find it a waste of breath to demand that everybody go back to the original meaning of the word. That'll just provoke conflict, and a most pointless kind of conflict, too -- conflict about semantics.

I think it might be a more helpful approach to let "yoga" be "yoga" and try to come up with some other term to designate what Patañjali meant by "yoga." After all, the word "yoga" is itself a metaphor.

Alternatively, we could just decide to live with the many senses of the word, and try to make the meaning clear from context. That seems to work pretty well most of the time.

Simply put, I think it's futile and often counterproductive to demand that people change the way they use some word. Usage is king, even for the good folk who write dictionaries.

Megan Walker said...

With all due respect, Leigh, you weren't there. There's a reason Lil has tried to separate herself from the events that took place.

My apologies to Nathan for this conversation taking place in your space.

Jack said...

Please feel free to delete this if you feel it is inappropriate. I think Cowgirl Yogi above pretty much echos a lot of the yoga crowd these days. This is from her bio on her blog. Oy.

"All the weird American marketing trappings that now come with modern yoga. $100 pants? That’s retarded! And yet I own some. know why? Because those $100 pants fucking rule. They are the best pants I own, I look super hot in them. Yes, I know I’m not supposed to want to look hot. But I can’t seem to help myself. Ganesh on a t-shirt? He’s a deity! He doesn’t belong on a t-shirt! But look at him. He’s so cute. And the shirt is pink. Damn. They got me again."

Nathan said...

Hmm - this post sparked some interesting stuff. Here's one issue I'd like to focus on, as brought up by Petteri:

"I think the problem is really a lack of clarity about what's being taught: body practice or mind practice, or both integrated. They're all called "yoga," although they have fundamentally different goals. This yoga aims for good bodily health and physical well-being, that yoga aims for liberation. Confusing."

This confusion has been on my mind a lot in recent years. And clearly, differing definitions of "yoga" played a role in Megan's situation at her former work place.

I totally agree with Petteri that trying to get everyone to return to a single definition of yoga isn't worth the effort. Indeed, yoga practice and thought have always been diverse, to the point where some schools have dismissed other schools as not being legitimate. So it goes.

The challenges today are different in terms of the fact that much of asana heavy practice has chopped off the spiritual, and is focused on secular goals. That makes for a different flavor of conflict than historically, when it was mostly about different spiritually-centered yoga paths saying they were better or more complete than the others.

I have sometimes thought that maybe studios and other organizations offering asana practice for good health and other such benefits could just add the word "exercise" into their descriptors. "We offer various forms of exercise yoga."

However this is done, somehow there needs to be more clarity in how classes and programs are presented to the public, as well as what the mission(s) of the organizations are delivering the classes and programs. And because yoga has become so broadly applied and taught, that clarity is even more vital.

On a more specific note, I have noticed that stories where the tension between particular teachers and yoga studio owners (often also teachers) spilling over into a more public audience seems to be a fairly common phenomenon. I sometimes wonder if it has something to do with the general model of yoga studios, where you have all these teachers with varying ideas and approaches trying to co-exist, and at the same time, there's at least some pressure to "bring in the money" on everyone.

If you add on all of that conflict between teachers with secular goals for their classes and those who are spiritually focused, it's hard to see how things would function well. At the studio where I'm doing my teacher training, more than one of the teachers there used to teach at a Corepower studio, but eventually found that their interest in meditation, pranayama, and other elements of the yogic path made it difficult to continue teaching at a place that is mostly about exercise yoga.

Cowgirl Yogi said...

Dear jack, please do not use my words without my permission. You took part of my bio out of context.
If you were to read my blog in it's whole you would understand that I write satire. I would very much appreciate it, nathan if you would remove jack's comment as he does not have my permission to use my work as he obviously doesn't understand it's meaning.

Cowgirl yogi

Nathan said...

Cowgirl, since your comment offers your intentions behind the bio, I think I'll leave both comments up.

Algernon said...

All fascinating. I have no insight to add now, but appreciate all of this.

Gemma Wilson said...

Wow - Came here by accdent - Enjoyed the post and absoultely loved the comments - You have some passionate followers

yogatim said...

Dear Peterri, what do you mean yoga is a metaphor? Sanskrit words can have a large number of meanings, and therefore be open to varying translation , but I don't think it is correct to describe them as metaphors.

Allowing the meaning of the word yoga to slide due to modern day colloquialisms (if that's actually a word:) can only have a corrosive effect on the understanding of the science.
It does not do for those that understand the essence of the practise to compromise the meaning of it (even if we're talking semantics) just because the majority is now made up of those that are ignorant of it. If you understand, then you have a duty as a teacher to enlighten. Otherwise we end up with the blind leading the blind.
There is good reason that yoga was traditionally taught to a select few, and that the teachings were kept secret. It was the same in the martial arts.

Sorry for the rant.

Gleef said...

@yogatim: I can't speak for Petteri, but my understanding is that the word "yoga" is a metaphor too, so I guess I'll share my understanding.

I don't speak ancient Sanskrit, but have frequently been taught that the literal meaning of "योग", of "yoga", is to yoke; more specifically: to connect an oxen to a cart so they can act together.

Furthermore, my understanding is that the word's original use in a spiritual context was often intended to implicitly bring to mind the more mundane definition as a metaphor for our spiritual connections. That the spiritual meaning of the word was not mere semantic drift, nor a new homonym, but a deliberate, metaphorical, reference to the mundane definition.

Since we have a very different linguistic background than the original yoga practitioners, the implicit metaphor is lost, and the roots of the word need to be taught explicitly if we are to understand that facet of yoga.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this blog after an extensive search on the internet regarding yoga teacher training. I have been a yoga practitioner for seven years now. I have had several opportunities in the past to participate in yoga teacher training. The issue I am having is what I've deemed the 'corporatization of yoga'. I am a massage therapist and also see this corporatization happening to the 3,000 year old practice of healing touch. I am not necessarily interested in becoming a 'certified' yoga teacher. Rather I am interested in the path (experience) in learning how to safely and effectively teach yoga. I want to guide people in their yoga journeys. My yogic connection is more spiritual based and as this blog as pointed out, the spiritual aspect of yoga seems to be disregarded in favor of the exercise in the West. This disconnect really has me struggling to find a suitable yoga teacher training program. If one goes through teacher training at a particular studio it seems one is being prepped to conform teaching to that particular studio/script. I'd actually prefer to apprentice under a seasoned (spiritual) yogi rather than get some certificate from a regulatory agency (YA) or to learn a script. Thank you for this blog.

Nathan said...

"I'd actually prefer to apprentice under a seasoned (spiritual) yogi rather than get some certificate from a regulatory agency (YA) or to learn a script." It's interesting. I completed my teacher training last February from a center that's got some good teachers, but definitely played into the corporatized yoga mindset far too much for my taste. I learned a lot though, both about ways to teach asana and pranayama, but also about what I specifically disagreed with about popular, modern yoga.

Since the training, I have not really "taught" yoga. What I want to do in a regular studio setting isn't impossible, but it probably would take work to truly cultivate an active, committed student group. Meanwhile, I've been getting more opportunities to teach - specifically give talks to the community and teach basic meditation instruction - at my zen center. For me, it feels like a period of seasoning - and that in some ways, it's much more intelligent to let teaching and students wanting to be taught come to you. As opposed to what the yoga teacher trainings do, which is basically to cram you full of stuff, and then send you off to promote the hell out of yourself to get students and get paid.

I don't really know what's best for you. You comment about apprenticeship seems like a good path, if you can find someone, and if you aren't hoping to be dependent on income from teaching (in the short run anyway). Whatever you do, remain true to your calling. And keep listening to what your deepest desires are.

Best wishes to you.

David Goulet said...

what a mind blowing posting done by you buddy. Thanks for sharing it. I want more posts like this by you in future.

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