Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mainstream American Yoga Avoids Suffering

After co-teaching a workshop on yoga and other movement practices in our social movements, I have been watching folks talk online about Yoga Journal and the state of American yoga these days. There's a lot that can be said in this regard, from the continued influence of colonialist narratives, to the heavy commodification of the practice. However, today I'd like to focus on this:

Much of the modern American 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. Or how to process the ongoing imperialist war machine. Or how to face, and possibly effectively challenge systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia. Or how to be and act in ways that resist eco-cide, and promote eco-centricism on an individual and societal scale. In other words, how to be a liberated being in the world.

For several years now, I have regularly said this verse at or near bedtime from the 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 yoga 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. When I indulge in easy hatred towards the folks in power positions that are creating so much hell in the world, I'm forgetting that buddhanature is boundless, and that my liberation is bound up with everyone elses'.

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; and the majority of them saw the teachings not just as individual tools, but also as gateways into understanding and acting in the world around us. In this, working on a political campaign or being part of a collective effort to develop new alternatives was just as worthy of a dharma talk as facing emotional challenges, or becoming more intimate with the breath or some other object of meditation. Along these lines, taking up Warrior Pose (see teaching image above) can more easily be seen as a training ground for cultivating the strength to stay grounded in the midst of a protest, or picket line, or heated meeting with a public official.

As I see it, 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 is a big plus. But what happens when the bottom falls out on the coping mechanism? What if, in being able to cope more, you're also aiding the continuation of the systems of oppression and suffering that brought on much of the very misery you sought relief from in the first place?

The best medicine goes straight to the roots, taking out that which feeds all the surface-level disorders. Sometimes, it acts swiftly; other times, it slowly seeps in, like Shantideva's words above have for me.

In any case, perhaps American yoga can take a cue from the Buddha and turn more directly towards suffering, individually and collectively. This won't solve the myriad of issues with the American yoga scene, but in my book, it would be a step in the right direction.


Junkstylediva said...

I think we all want to alleviate suffering. Its not just a human thing its universal. My cat certainly doesn't want to sit on a hot stove, he will avoid it or move quickly to get off.

I'm not sure what you are trying to convey in this post. If you are hoping (wishing) others will stand up to those who cause suffering (governments/corporations) then that's a different topic.

In my opinion, people are fearful...of losing jobs, status, a place to live or their life... if they make waves. Its easier for them to express themselves behind an anonymous name on social media. Fear is a great motivator and those in power know it...that's why we are going to was (again).

I think people go to yoga for health, a social activity, etc. not to become "enlightened". I could be wrong, but anyway, could you explain more about what you are experiencing that leads you to your conclusion?

Nathan said...

"I think people go to yoga for health, a social activity, etc. not to become "enlightened"."

Right. And that's what I'm getting at. Much of what we call yoga in America isn't yoga. It's just exercise, or something to do for fun. Which basically flies in the face of the thousands of years of history of yoga as a spiritual path.

Now, I'm totally fine with people doing exercise, or wanting to get healthy, or even have fun. In fact, although I wouldn't call working out "yoga," if others want to call it that, I'm not going to waste time arguing with them.

At the same time, a lot of people seem to be coming to yoga classes seeking relief from what I'd argue are the systemic pressures of living in an oppressive society. And the reality is that if the yoga these folks were offered had more depth to it, then perhaps they'd not only get some relief, but also be more inclined to help change the social conditions in our communities, nations, and the world. The same social conditions contributing to the suffering that brought them to yoga in the first place. Yoga, and other spiritual practices, have the ability to support us in working with the inevitable fear that comes up with challenging anything that hits close to home. Or to face head on the suffering we or others are experiencing. It doesn't even have to be about enlightenment, but liberation from what hinders us to see into the true nature of things is the actually "goals" of yoga.

Of course people are afraid of making waves. Not everyone is in a place to make big waves, and I wouldn't expect everyone to suddenly become front line social activists. But some people are very much in a place where they could afford to take a risk, and often it's those who can afford to challenge systemic issues who choose not to. From what I see, many, many folks who are really in the least position to put their asses on the line choose to anyway because the other choice is to live under bone crushing oppression.

I'm not hoping or wishing for anything in this post. I'm suggesting that if the average yoga class here in the U.S. had more depth, and included more of focus on the suffering and hindrances we have(individually and collective), it would probably be a more valuable practice.

Junkstylediva said...

I understand now and agree with you. I live in Southern California...home of the "It's all about me" crowd. I know you practice Zen meditation and maybe that is where similar minds will meet. I see too many people who do yoga as their exercise and not much else. Have you priced a pair of Lululemon yoga clothes yet? Trendy and expensive.

A couple months ago there was a yoga themed festival in long Beach. I was going until I read their main sponsor was a beer company. ???? I don't get that how the two would mix.

I meet more like minded people via mediation though and that has to be ok with me. We can't force others to behave the way we would like. We can only focus on our own behavior.

Nathan said...

Yeah, I've spent a little bit of time in the Los Angeles area. I can't imagine trying to have these conversations with many folks down there.

While I agree with you that we can't force anyone to change, we can speak up sometimes, and offer a different approach to it all.

Junkstylediva said...

I have given it more thought. You teach yoga. How about you teach a class that incorporates what you are talking about. I'm sure you will attract those who have your same philosophy and maybe even bring along some who are newbies. It couldn't hurt to try.

Nathan said...

I'm working on building some classes incorporating this kind of stuff. The workshop I co-led at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship conference last month was one example.

tracyv said...

Um. I don't live in Los Angeles, or even California, but your "I can't imagine trying to have these conversations with many folks down there" is PRECISELY the kind of stereotyping that gets you "systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia." Honestly, that's incredibly and disappointingly dismissive of a huge and highly varied segment of the population.

Nathan said...

Tracy, I've never seen your name here before. And you're comment doesn't give me much to work with, nor do I get the sense that you know much about the yoga scene in southern CA.

Here's the thing, you're right. My comment was sloppy and dismissive. I should have been more specific because LA is a giant, diverse place with all kinds of folks practicing yoga.

When I said it, I was thinking about all the hip, rich white folks with yoga mats in one hand, and lattes in another, running around Santa Monica in search of the next yoga fix. There's a lot of this in Santa Monica and other well off areas of LA, and that's what I was responding to.

Nathan said...

Here's a recent article about yoga in Los Angeles.

I disagree with the sentiment it expresses that people of color don't "value" yoga. In many other cities, practitioners of color are fairly easy to find. One of my favorite yoga bloggers, for example, has a great profile series on practitioners of color from across the US, most of whom teach in a variety of capacities in their communities.

However, I do think the point the article makes about yoga studios in LA being located primarily in wealthy white dominate neighborhoods is dead on, and reflects a commonplace issue for American yoga. Namely, given the average cost of yoga classes, plus where they are often located, it's more likely to find people similar to those I regularly in Santa Monica, than it is to find a diverse crowd of folks practicing yoga. You often have to move beyond the yoga studios and into places like community centers, church basements, city parks, etc. to find more racial, sexuality, economic and even body size/shape diversity.

Junkstylediva said...

Nathan, you are so right (about the LA article).... people like Tracy V LOVE to accuse others speaking their truth as being "systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia." in order to shut the conversation down... I am against all PC... we have to talk about all subjects to figure things out. Since Tracy has not been to LA she might want to make the trip to see for herself... that being said, I do not see people of color or poorer people of any color, at yoga classes because it is expensive. I am lucky, classes are offered at the local senior center and all ages are welcome.

Just look at the cost of yoga apparel. NY Fashion Week just wrapped up a few weeks ago and their newest fad? Overpriced, trendy active wear. I read so many articles that say yoga is not about the perfect pose it's a "mindset." That is a relief to me because the first yoga class I attended was in SF and the room was heated to a 1,000 degrees, people were human pretzels, wearing fancy yoga clothes and I showed up in sweats and teeshirt... I felt out of place, not to mention the teacher was always correcting my pose... I never went back until several years later.

I am happy to hear you are teaching a different style. Always enjoy reading your thoughts.

Ingebird (I hit the wrong identity button the first time I commented on this post... I am the same person as rectalcancermyass blog)

Nathan said...

Somehow, the whole expensive clothing tie to yoga needs to be dismantled. Or at least countered more deliberately. The studio I teach at is filled with folks in everyday clothing. It's a total relief to be honest.

I remember how out of place I often felt during my teacher training at a larger studio in town, where the whole fashion bug was totally on. There were some excellent teachers working there, but everything felt like it was tied to consumer culture. The studio was cranking out new teachers at a rapid rate. Both of their sites had stores attached to them, selling various things, including high end clothing. And conversations between students between or during class often revolved around things like shopping, taking expensive vacations, or going to exclusive (read expensive) workshops with famous teacher X.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of options for folks who aren't in this crowd. However, many of the places offering much more accessible classes struggle with finances and/or visibility.