Thursday, July 12, 2012

Yoga Platitudes and Great Adversity

I think all of us have an impulse to make everything alright, even if some of us override it most of the time. And some of us believe that every last ounce of misery in the world is part of some divine plan to teach us about ourselves, which perhaps is true, but there's absolutely no way to prove it.

This post takes on the sugary yoga babble that fills so many American yoga classes these days. It's one of the things I couldn't reconcile myself with during my yoga teacher training. The fact that people with 10, 15 or more years of yoga teaching experience could offer such drivel to their students, and that this is one of the main things that kept them coming back in droves. I get it. People are stressed. They want to feel comfortable and safe and perhaps held like children. But is that the purpose and function of these ancient spiritual traditions so many of us have entered into? I seriously doubt it. Which doesn't mean that there's no place for comforting, creating safety, etc. It's just that what I often witnessed and experienced was practice built solely around that.

The thing is, this take the edge off of everything and make it all ok approach is almost the exact opposite of Zen. Almost because there's still a sense of everything is ok, but it's a wide open field ok-ness, something completely beyond the reach of our little-self mind. Let's look at a few pieces of the post I linked to.

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome – a form of alcohol-induced dementia. That’s when she became a ghost. I was living in Dallas at the time – she in Austin – when one day my little sister called me in a panic, said she couldn’t find our mother anywhere. There’s blood all over the house, she told me. It looks like a murder scene.

I got in my car and made the four-hour trip to Austin that night, calling hospitals and jails on the way. Finally, I got a hold of the attendant at the gas station near her house. Do you know where my mother is? I asked him. She’s the little blonde lady, the one who comes in there all the time to get wine and a cup of ice. I think the police picked her up, he tells me. She walked in here with blood all over her face – I think she fell.

There's really nothing anyone can say to pretty up an experience like this. Nothing.

Yesterday in yoga class I was lying in pigeon pose, when I felt my mother sitting before me. Not the ghost mother, but my real mother. Holding my hand.

The yoga teacher started speaking: “Everything in life happens perfectly and synergistically so the soul can transform and know God.”

I wanted to scream. “Bull$#!&! How the #%& did drinking until her brain withered away teach this woman about God? Where’s the divinity in that?!

The phone in my bag lights up. Mommy Dearest.

“Our challenges,” the teacher continued, “are spiritual lessons that illuminate our disconnection from source and lead us toward awakening. This is karma. Spirit gives us the lessons we need to learn. This is how the soul wakes up.”

Don’t talk to me about Karma, I wanted to tell her. Don’t give me that crap about the Law of Attraction, about how if we just focus on our desires everything we want will come to us. Tell that to the ghost, I wanted to yell at her. Tell her all she needs to do is wake up and ask for what she wants to get better. Tell her she manifested this.

I used to believe that story. I used to believe that adversity inevitably becomes resilience, that the universe conspires to bring us toward transcendence, that if we don’t learn the lesson this time… well, there’s always the next life. But I don’t believe it anymore. I can’t.

I never really have been able to. Believe this. The whole story and how it's packaged. I do believe that adversity can become resilience, but only if someone learns to face their life boldly, without flinching, and recognizes the much bigger picture present. Too much adversity in the hands of someone who can't do that at least some of the time leads to misery and destruction. Leads to variations of the author's mother.

There's a lot that could be unpacked here. The way a lot of yoga teachers have no idea about how karma actually functions. The blame the victim thread that runs through The Law of Attraction and similar stories.

But what I want to focus on is this: much of the modern yoga world avoids suffering. Thinking that people are already challenged enough, yoga teachers, studios, and the like spin everything towards bliss, or its poorer cousin comfort. Which seems to be a balm for the mundane stress of office jobs, traffic, or dealing with upset children, but leaves people absolutely stranded when something like loosing a parent happens.

For a good four years now, when I brush my teeth before bed, I say this verse to myself from 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva:

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

These four lines have been more useful to me than a thousand platitudes. But they also are, if you actually put them into practice, challenging words to swallow. When I bitch and moan and fuss about the "little cares," I'm forgetting them. When I fake being happy, or dismiss something bothering me as "nothing," I'm forgetting them.

Over the years, I have worked with perhaps four or five excellent yoga teachers. All of them gave suffering a fair shake; all of them understood the balance between challenging people to face their lives as they are, and also to be kind to yourself and relax.

American Yoga is not devoid of bodhisattvas, to use Buddhist language - it's just flooded with people who are essentially trading in the destructive addictions our our society people use to cope with something that is more beneficial, but ultimately is still just a coping mechanism.

Being able to cope without destroying yourself with the means is a big plus. But what happens when the bottom falls out on the coping mechanism?

*On the positive, there is a cool project being developed by a pair of yogis and scholars to collect the major yoga texts throughout history into a single English language volume. Please check out their Kickstarter campaign for more details.


Robyn said...

Would that anyone could tell me the purpose of the contemporary group yoga class! Certainly not so that a group of miscellaneous people could be subjected to one person's take on profound ideas that they (likely) have only the most superficial understanding of.

My yoga teacher training mentor recently asked me how many people I felt really inspired by and connected to in my ashtanga community. And then in my Zen community.

Ah-ha, thought so. There is a reason for this!

Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan said...

The purpose of a group yoga class. Right. Exactly. I haven't been able to step in and teach at a yoga studio because of issues like this. Meanwhile, I'm giving talks and leading groups in my Zen sangha. Go figure.

jordan said...

Hi Nathan,
My name is Jordan, and I'm with TLC Book Tours. We coordinate blog book tours for authors and publishers, and we currently are touring the book "Where the Heart Beats" by Kay Larsen ( The blogger from "Where You Stop, Nobody Knows" suggested that you might be interested in participating in this tour. If you're interested, we'd have a copy of the book sent to you in exchange for you posting an honest review of the book on your blog on a mutually agreeable date in early-to-mid August. We'd love to have you on the tour if you're interested!
Jordan (at) tlcbooktours (dot) com

Was Once said...

The book is interesting, it is just I am busy getting ready to leave, and my injury does not allow for quick reading.