Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Different Doesn't Mean Duped (Why you should maybe reconsider leaving yoga...)

I LOVE reading about yoga. I love it all from the ancient scriptures to the modern-day gurus to the millions of bloggers that are currently out there. What I don't love, is when yogis talk smack about other yogis. I mean...it just isn't yogic. This trend is what really inspired me to start The Social Sutras. I'd be at one studio in NYC doing a teacher training, and I'd hear the students talking smack about the studio where I did my last training...where they've never practiced...but where they heard the classes are _______ {insert derogatory statement here}. It bothered me. It didn't make me want to FIGHT BACK and proclaim the greatness of that other yoga studio. It made me want to address the issue on a grander scale. Not "my yoga studio is better than your yoga studio" style banter but rather a platform to demonstrate and celebrate the validity of ALL different types of yoga and yogis (whether I "like" them or not).

But I digress...I had a strong reaction to Irasna Rising's piece "Why I Left Yoga (& Why I think a Helluva Lot of People are Being Duped)" that was recently featured on Elephant Journal, and I bet a lot of y'all did to. I could write a manifesto on this, but I'll try to keep it concise..."try." For starters, I don't disagree with all of what she said. I traveled to India recently and have to admit that initially, just saying I was going there gave me a real feeling of yogi street cred. I mean let's be honest...very few teachers of note (or serious students for that matter) don't make at least one trip to India. In fact, they more often than not refer to it as "the Motherland." That is the kind of statement that would infuriate Irasna and what I now, having been to India, would feel very disingenuous saying. I learned a lot there. I'm glad I went. I'm a yogi through and through. But I do not relate to India as my "Motherland." It felt very foreign, because it was. It had very little in common with even the most "authentic" yoga classes I've attended in the West. AND I'm ok with that. In fact, it felt quite freeing. I can be a yogi and even a yoga teacher without memorizing all the gods in the Hindu Pantheon or knowing how to tie a sari. I am a Western yogi, and I haven't been "duped" into thinking I'm something I'm not. I believe there is value in traveling to India, visiting temples, seeing the societal context the teachings of yoga emerged from, and studying the ancient texts. I celebrate and appreciate the ancient traditions but I certainly do not practice all of them, nor do I aspire to. And that's OK. You can if you want to (well maybe not the thing about cutting the underside of your tongue), and that's OK too. 

Here's a rundown of a few of her arguments in blue and my thoughts on them. I'm just your average white girl who sometimes wears lululemon though, so please feel free to dissent!

1) "I see yoga branching out into such things like chocolate yoga or trance dance yoga, where in short, the culture of the nightclub or rave is being super-imposed onto yoga." I actually attended a "trance dance" yoga event in NYC once. I also worked for a nightclub in NYC for nine years. Let me tell you...other than some trippy lights and loud music, the two had NOTHING in common.
CLUB LIGHTS! And Yoga! Together! Om my! 
There was no "
Binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and drug taking" or anything remotely of that nature. Well to be honest there was some green juice chugging, DEEP hip-opening and perhaps even a Turmeric tonic or two being passed around, but club-land it was not.
people getting cray at the Underground Yoga
event in NYC - dranks and all!
About a month ago I visited a Krishna temple in Vrindavan around 8:30am. There was already packed crowd. Women were dressed to the nines - henna, eyeliner, jewels. There were lights, instruments playing LOUDLY, flower garlands being thrown through the air and someone passing a mic around so people could sing at the top of their lungs. Older women were taking me and my fellow Western yogis by the hand and spinning us in circles. They were shimmying and shaking and waving their hands in the air (like they just didn't care). That experience was much more similar to my yoga trance dance experience than anything I've EVER experienced in a nightclub. I actually found it a bit odd how "wild" things were in that temple at that hour of the morning. Maybe that's how the author feels about trance dance yoga. Maybe she likes her yoga with a bit more seriousness or introspection, and maybe I do. And that's OK. 

2) "Yoga in North America caters to the affluent and is falling in line with the capitalist system of profit. It is increasingly distancing itself from the true roots of yoga." Duh. You just summed up EVERYTHING in North America. Have you tried going to college lately (at least in the States)? It's gonna cost you a LOT more than the $1200 a year for a yoga studio membership. And let's not forget, if you are practicing at Moksha, a boutique hot yoga studio, like the author of this piece then it's gonna be expensive. And, let's be real, the actual population of Canada is "a sea of white faces, with maybe the token black and asian." Not saying yoga is as diverse as it could be...but that's changing, and there are a PLETHORA of brown, black and other non-white-girl yogis who are BEING the change, rather than bitching about the status quo.
Leo Rising & and Hadji Jones - hosting the Black Yogis Mashup in NYC

3) "It is really annoying to watch some white people try to act ethnically brown, when they are not…and will never be."  I have to be honest here: I had a twinge of this feeling when I was in India...about myself. I felt self-conscious walking through a sea of devotees in a Hindu temple like a big, white, sore thumb. It didn't feel authentic FOR ME to wear traditional Indian dress. However, if something - anything- taken from any culture speaks to someone deeply and profoundly then for God's sake (gods' plural?) let them be! So little in this world truly stirs the soul! Does it also annoy you that Macklemore (a white boy) won the Grammy for Best Rap Album? Or worse, does it annoy you when a Transgender person who has not undergone surgery "acts" like the gender with which they truly identify? Considering the list of "dislikes" a mile long on the author's Blogger profile page (Dislikes: Hip hop, rap, country western music, Nickelback, Creed, Celine Dion, boy-bands, most of today’s Top 40 music, Dave Matthews Band, any film with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, practically every film by Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg , Broadway musicals, reality TV, the TV show “Friends”, practically everything that came out after 1992, dentists and accountants, malls)...to name a few, I assume it might. Yoga teaches us to let go of both our attachments and our aversions (aka dislikes). So maybe the more you really get into yoga, the less other yogis will annoy you?

4) "Sanskrit, like Latin, is a dead language. Let it go already." Now you're just being a whiner. Catholics as well as schools around the world still learn Latin. Like Sanskrit, it's a rich, complex language from which many root words are derived. It is also the original language of many Yogic (and Vedic and Hindu - which are all unique) texts, so there is less lost in translation when one studies and understands the language in which they were written. "Chanting in sanskrit does not make you look cool nor does it make you an automatic Hindu." Nope, you're right. Most Kirtan singers I know put "looking cool" pretty far down on their list (if it appears there at all) and many are Jews, Christians, non-denominational spiritual folks and some, Hindus. Some of us chant because it feels good to open up our voices and sing, even if we DON'T know exactly what we are saying. I like listening to operas in Italian which I also doing speak but that's allowed because I'm ethnically Italian right? I also grew up singing Latin hymns in church though so maybe my opinion doesn't count here. 

5) Just because it’s exotic does not mean it’s real or more authentic. Now THIS statement I agree with wholeheartedly- I just spin it in a different, more positive way. Why does "authenticity" matter? I don't care if my teacher is named "Dharma Krishna Saraswati" or Jane Freaking Doe. I also don't care if we chant Om Namah Shivaya or sing Bob Dylan. Play the harmonium? Great. Don't know what a harmonium is? Great.  
"Real Indians, in India, make fun of many Westerners behind their backs and are making money off of their ignorance...There is nothing spiritual about it. It’s a cash cow and they are milking many Western followers of yoga for all they can get." Why must spending money immediately make something a scam and inherently devoid of spirituality? If a Western yogi, with plenty of disposable income, wants to pay for a bougie yoga retreat then why is that such a bad thing? The Western yogi, who could have gone to Canyon Ranch or a ski chalet in the Alps or perhaps snorkeling off the coast of some island, instead spends their money on a retreat to a luxury ashram in India where they are taught by a local "guru" who may or may not be the living avatar of a Hindu deity. Once I went to sleepaway camp where an 18 year old girl taught me how to camp out. Survivorman she was not. Looking back I should be really pissed she took my money, huh? I guess there are scam artists everywhere.
David Life & Sharon Gannon -
founders of Jivamukti Yoga School

6) "Yoga can become cultic—very quickly." Sure, can't really argue with that. But then again, can't anything that matters deeply to people become cultic? I've worked at companies that were SUPER cultic (not naming names but it's in your dislikes). I've belonged to a sorority (cult city). I think my husband is a member of the New Orleans Saints cult. I'm also still too afraid to go to a Soul Cycle class because you know what I heard about that place?? Yep - total cult. This is where Viveka (Sanskrit strike 2) or discrimination comes in. If someone - even a guru- tells you to do something that makes you uncomfortable (unless it's like, ankle to knee pose) then don't do it, and you'll be safe. "I have heard stories of certain Jivamukti yoga instructors threatening to cut off friendships with other yoga instructors from other traditions because they were not completely vegan." I've heard stories about the cast members from Sex and the City TOTALLY hating each other in real life even though they pretend to be BFFs on screen...can you believe it??!!! But seriously, If this is true, then I agree and this is exactly the type of divisiveness and exclusivity that needs to be eradicated from the yoga community. However, I've practiced at Jivamukti and even gone on retreats with them. In fact, on one retreat to Bali, there were 5 non-Vegans on the trip and we actually (instructors included) allowed those evil monsters to sit at the same table with us in a restaurant in public!! We didn't even make them wear a scarlet C for carnivore. So yes, there are "mean girls" in every group, but let's not just the flock by one little bitchy goose. 
Volunteers from Urban Zen in Haiti

7) "The level of cultural awareness among some of the yoga set is pitiful at times. And yet, this is the same crowd that tries to come off as cultural and spiritual mouthpieces for Indian sub-continent." Uh, what other circles do YOU hang around with? Because in my life, the MOST culturally aware, spiritual, and activist people I have encountered in the last decade of my life (I like to call this period A.Y. - "after yoga") have been in the yoga community. Try having a conversation about endangered species, poverty, clean water, or animal cruelty at your average cocktail party (or in a nightclub...not a trance dance yoga club though, mind you) and you know what response you'll get? Crickets. From my experience, the longer you practice yoga the more culturally informed you become because you simply start caring about other people more! Maybe you don't necessarily become an expert on India, but based on the author's logic, why should we? We aren't Indian! We're rich white girls! No human beings are perfect - yogis included. But I am proud of how much I've seen yoga and seva (another Sanskrit word - whoops!) or service intersect in my years as a yogi.

I give the author credit for acknowledging that her arguments are overly broad and that there are many fine teachers out there doing great work for way too little pay. However, when has leaving a society that you once felt aligned with - and then complaining from the sidelines - helped that society improve and evolve? I'm not duped. I see a lot of things going on. Some bad things- sure, but so many MORE good things. The Western Yoga Community should be uplifted by the abundance of positivity put forth by the hard-working, selfless, spiritually motivated and inspiring members of its community, rather than dragged down by negativity. Why not celebrate and publicize those yogis who are truly serving their students and the world at large? Let them become the "faces" (and bodies) of yoga, rather than the overly money hungry or "those who are obsessed with the body beautiful"! Why not choose to see the haters, the scam artists, the judgers, the "vapid personalities" and "Pale women with Shiva tramp-stamps" as imperfect human beings, like each of us, and have compassion for them? Or if not compassion, at least acceptance? 

To really just put the nail in my annoying-white-girl-quoting-Patanjali-in-Sanskrit coffin, I'd like to close with a verse from The Yoga Sutras (no seriously). I think of this verse often when I hear a yoga teacher talking smack about another yoga teacher, or hear someone say hot yoga isn't "real yoga" or read posts by members of the yoga community that seem to have an undercurrent of attack, like this one does:

Yoga Sutra 1.33 "maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam"

Or in WHITE FOLK SPEAK: "In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil."