Sunday, January 23, 2011

offer it all, and they'll take what they will

The first time I tried yoga was to fulfill a gym requirement my first year of college. The teacher was tiny and old, and my memories of the semester are that it was slow and the instructor spoke like the hypnotic snake in Disney's "Jungle Book." I was bored and confused and not of the mind to listen to what a recent Yogadork commenter called all the "woo-woo" yammering. At the end of the semester, I was someone who disliked yoga.

After graduating, I gave yoga another chance at the other end of the extreme spectrum: I became a Bikram girl. To avoid paying for classes, I volunteered at the studio once a week, washing sweat-soaked towels and refilling soap dispensers. The masochism of exercising in a sauna appealed to me. Never mind that in the months I practiced, I avoided classes more than I went to them and never made it through the standing series without nearly fainting; never mind that a beloved yoga-teacher friend pointed out that overstretching and knee-locking are potentially harmful practice habits.

Eventually, with about a year of steady vinyasa-ish classes in between (in which our heroine learns how to weather a savasana without an anxiety attack! and develops an aversion to Anusara's woo-woo overload), I found my way to Ashtanga, which is the tradition I can envision remaining devoted to for lifetimes. Ashtanga's starting point is physical practice, but everyone that falls for the discipline's meditative rigor soon finds themselves making lifestyle changes and studying the Sutras. (This blogger sums it up nicely.) The fact that yoga, for me and my practicing community, is an all-inclusive package, doesn't diminish the physical benefits; yoga will make you strong and lithe, and practicing poses is fun. But those benefits are just one minor part of the whole deal.

This is all to say that I can see using yoga poses as purely a fitness regimen. I did so for more than a year, consistently attending classes with chanting and words like "auspicious" being thrown around. But I think yoga teachers, who ostensibly are dedicated enough to yoga to want to pass along its teachings to others, should not depict a spiritual practice with physical aspects as purely physical. Accept, and continue to accept, students who return for the chiseled biceps, but to do this without practicing yoga on the teaching end—without offering the more three-dimensional practice, regardless of whether students choose to accept it—is doing a disservice.

But this is what "rebel" yogi Tara Stiles does, according to a profile in today's New York Times that's currently topping the most-read list. "Ms. Stiles, a 29-year-old former model with skyscraper limbs and a goofball sensibility, focuses on the physical and health aspects of yoga, not the spiritual or the philosophical," the article says. I'm all for Stiles' cheap class prices, but why flatten a tradition when people take what they need from a given situation regardless?

The story fanned flames in ongoing yoga wars, which features frequent media skirmishes over yoga's identity as its popularity continues to grow in the west: Has yoga been severed from its Hindu roots? Is it the new, post second-wave feminism outlet for frustrated homemakers? Is it a wellspring of commercial possibility? (If these links are any indication, perhaps the entire battle is being waged in the Times, while a host of entertaining yoga bloggers, and occasionally some Slate writers, weigh in from the sidelines. Wouldn't surprise me one bit.)

But, as Ashtanga guru K. Pattabhi Jois used to say, there is just one yoga: Patanjali Yoga. There's one Old Testament and a billion schools of thought about it, but religious and academic scholars don't just study what has resulted from the Bible. They continue returning to the text, which gives the complete picture of where traditions came from while allowing for yet more interpretations.

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Bikram was just profiled in Details and depicted as a crass, sexualized, materialistic tyrant. It's a pretty entertaining read: "I tell them all, 'No touchy-touchy, no kissy-kissy, no fucky-fucky!'" he says to the author, referring to students at his teacher training sessions. His copyrighted sequence of poses—and that's all it is, a sequence of poses, not a philosophy—is flashy, competitive and irreverent. I'm not sure how Bikram yoga is yoga other than this use of poses, but the man knows how to give an interview. 


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  2. Why so much discussion about someone using asana practice to make body beautiful?

    Yoga practice is not just asana but going deep within one self, not only an hour or two but living every moment with deep awareness of every thought and action performed.

    The only thing it should not be called "YOGA", instead call it "Asana Practice" then there is nothing to discuss. Of course practicing asana can help with awareness but that's only if someone is willing to see the practice that way. To me most of us are just living in illusion that we are practicing yoga in name of asana.