Sunday, September 14, 2014
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.