Saturday, March 17, 2012

American Mentality blocks ancient intentions of yoga

In light of a recent controversial New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” followed by a bandwagon effect of yogis firing back, I feel naturally compelled to offer up my own two cents on what is going on in America.

First of all, I am a baby yoga instructor. In other words, I received my 200-hour training certification a mere six months ago and I realize I have much to learn.
However, I have been practicing for nearly nine years and was lucky enough to grow at a studio that has stayed true to yoga’s roots. In effect, I developed a clear understanding in my mind of what yoga should truly be about: Compassion, liberation, focus, acceptance, relaxation and inner joy.
Day 323 Kwan Yin
Photo: Happydog
And, I see exactly how we [Americans] are distorting it. We twist it and tweak it beyond belief. We now have a successfully spun web of everything contradictory to the true 2,000-year-old practice.
No wonder people are destroying their bodies and having“yoga injuries.” It has been taken to a level where it never initially intended to go –– a place of competition, comparison and purely physical gain. I was reminded by this blurred ego-centered vision of yoga after I walked into a beautiful studio excited to possibly teach there.
But I drove away an hour later feeling let down by my own culture.
The woman was perfectly nice but one of the first questions out of her mouth was, “Have you ever been to L.A.? Have you taken the classes out there? They are so much better than here.”
“Well, um, no,” I said. “I haven’t. What makes them so much better?”
Once she began rattling off her response, I felt disheartened. Her list of answers included “sweat”,“work-out”, “toned” and “tighter”.
After our L.A. conversation, I led her through a demo of one of my yoga classes. She kept saying, “I need to sweat! I need to sweat!”
This was the first studio I set foot in on my search. It really freaked me out.
I thought, “Is this what yoga has to be like now for us –– for Americans? Has our intense, ‘Go-Go-Go’ over-achieving attitude overflowed into an ancient Indian practice intended to release the ego and calm our minds?” We have “Yoga Bikini Bootcamps,” which makes me think we want yoga to make us look sexy as we strut our little yoga butts and bods on the beach.
Photo: lululemon athletica
We are obsessed with Lululemon pants, water bottles, tank tops and everything else as long as it has the little symbol on it and priced at least 50 bucks. We want to go into 109-degree rooms for 90 minutes to stare at ourselves in the mirror and be yelled at by our almighty yoga instructor on a microphone, all while we must keep reminding ourselves we are burning calories.
As a woman, I understand the want to look good in a bikini and the want to burn calories. I understand wanting to be “tighter” and “toned,” but that is why we have push-ups, weights, resistance bands, cardio machines, group fitness classes, bikes, running shoes and everything else- and I personally enjoy all of these things. I love to get my heart pumping and break a good sweat –– it is healthy. But it should not be a necessity in a yoga class.
To my relief, I quickly discovered there are definitely studios here maintaining true yogic ways and I am lucky enough to teach at a few of them. I feel fortunate to work in these studios and grow as a new teacher and to spread my passion with others.
My personal benefits from yoga are three-fold: mental, spiritual and physical. My practice helps me to create mental focus and clarity, to understand the inner-workings of my mind and to overcome obstacles and break any mental chains holding me back from living life to its fullest potential.
Yoga brings me closer to my heart to clear past betrayals and hurts, leaving me free to share love for myself and everyone else around me. It helps me to take responsibility for my words and actions, to acknowledge and accept my flaws, and to live with clearer intent and awareness of the world around me.
And my physical gain from yoga has nothing to do with the tightening of my rear end. It has to do with my ever- increasing acceptance of my body and feeling comfortable in my own skin. It has to do with feeling like a warrior.
I could go on and on about how yoga serves as a tremendous aid in the richness of my life. It does this for many people I know, along with thousands of others. And it can do this for everybody, even A-type Americans (I am one of them, okay?).
It is not just about the Asanas, the physical postures of the practice, but it is also about life off the rubber mat. Yoga is about taking what we develop in our practice, whatever that may be – joy, strength, unconditional love, compassion — and bringing it out into the world to share, to make a positive difference in other people’s lives.
The true journey of yoga – an exploration of the heart, mind and soul — must begin on the inside. And it certainly does not begin in a session of Bikini Bootcamp.

Breath of Joy

I teach four yoga classes every week right now, and each class is drastically different from the next. One class has all beginners, people who have never heard a Sanskrit term or been in Downward Dog. They have to watch me carefully as I show them each movement and need direction in every moment. Then another has serious yogis who want to sweat profusely and deepen his or her practice, combined with new-comers who just want to get flexible and learn basic yoga postures....You get the idea.

Honestly, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to name my class: "Multi-Level".  I had subconsciously created a big challenge for myself.

But man, am I glad to take on this challenge now. It's taken a little work and lots of focus (and more to come), but it has caused me to meet so many different types of people- all ages, colors, sizes, and levels of yoga practitioners. At first, I freaked out a little inside when I had a person completely brand new to the entire practice of yoga in the same class as someone who has been practicing for over five years. I thought, maybe I need to change the name of my class. 

Now, I see that a little patience, attentiveness and compassion goes a long way, to help each person go where they need to go that day in his or her practice. Whether it's modifying postures, taking more advanced variations of them, or pushing back into Child's Pose to rest for a few breaths, I find having "Multi-Levels" in one class can create a compassionate communal harmony among the group.

However, there is one exercise that all of my students can do: Breath of Joy. It just never fails- at least from my yoga-teaching experience so far. It is one of my all-time favorites. In a nutshell, it's three inhalations and one exhalation- first inhale with arms out in front at shoulder height, second inhale with arms out to the side like wings, third inhalation with arms way up over head and one exhale with knees bending and arms sweeping back behind the body (with a sigh). Although it sounds a little ridiculous, and sometimes, my students (and myself included) feel a little silly practicing Breath of Joy, I have found it is one of the most imperative parts of my class. 

Every single person in front of me is smiling (or laughing!) by the completion of five to ten repetitions of Breath of Joy. It does not matter how serious, how nervous or how fearful a person may be on any given day-- there is always at least a little turn up in his or her mouth. And that to me, is what yoga is all about. 

Personally, It has helped (and continues to help) me to find my inner joy, even when my external situations have been draining or depressing. And I am a firm believer that yoga can be a healing technique for everyone- if they let it.  That is why I try to add Breath of Joy into the middle of all of my classes- so we can let go at least for a few moments, and everyone can experience and share their own joy, despite whatever struggles they may be facing. 

I'll never forget one day in my Wednesday night class, a class full of hard-working business people who come to sweat a little and let go of stress they accumulate from work. We were in the midst of Breath of Joy, and all of a sudden, we were all hysterically laughing.  No one really knew why but it didn't matter. That's the only time I've lost control of myself completely while I am teaching, and boy, did that feel good. 

We live in a fast-paced society that makes it easy to be swept up in fear and uncertainty. So, we have to keep spreading the joy.