When asked to define "Yoga," several explanations come to mind:
1. The practice of unifying our lower, egoic self with a higher consciousness (Um, is that God? Is yoga a religion?)
2. Wearing your most expensive spandex in order to free up your flexibility so you can finally get into one of those insect poses -- firefly, scorpion...
3. The art of alternate-nostril breathing and envisioning golden rays of light emanating from your toes
4. Spending $25 for an hour and a half of push-ups
5. All of the above? None?
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what yoga is and I've been attempting to teach it for 12 years and practice it for 17.
I do know yoga is not a football game, though some treat it like a competition and others should try wearing a helmet. It is not a type of food, yet it encourages a plant-based diet. Yoga is not a performance, but it was designed to help us escape the theatrics of living as a human being -- to free us from attachments, distractions, and mental chatter. It is not something you can hold. It is not taught in a single book or from a single country.
It is a way of life. A practice. A discipline. A mental state. A holistic experience. It is a dichotomy -- it can be hard and soft, light and heavy, willful and playful, frustrating and ecstatic. It builds a community, while teaching you how to be alone. And without a doubt, it will show you everything you never wanted to know about yourself... if you're doing it right.
So what's up with the millions of styles of yoga and trillions of teacher training programs and certifications and and and? Why do some teachers give you blankets and blocks, while others invite you into the class at your own risk? How is there so much variation in a practice meant to better the human race through meditation, proper nutrition, and physical rehabilitation? Aren't there any standards, you ask? And most of all, why are some classes exorbitantly expensive and others "donation-based?"
Well, yoga is like everything else that goes mainstream. It's a trend that began as a philosophical way of life in the East and caught on like wildfire in the West. It changed from its humble beginnings and evolved into marketing propaganda. You can only do yoga correctly if you wear these black pants. You will become a yogi if you listen to this mantra while staying in pigeon pose for 37 minutes on each side. I promise you nirvana and eternal enlightenment if you drink this kool aid -- I mean, green smoothie.
The mixed messages and finger pointing are frustrating and I understand why many scoff at the industry that's befallen a sacred and transformative lifestyle practice.
I write this post as a confession: I'm mad at yoga. Angry that it hasn't done a better job at battling the commercialization. Disappointed it has strayed so far from the foundation. Bothered by the misinterpretation of the mat and the photos in magazines that scream about poses requiring an exact technique, no matter the body type. And most of all, I'm sad that some yoga hurts, creates more tension, and builds distrust.
Oh and while I'm on the subject of confessing: I spend a lot of money on yoga gear. I don't meditate regularly. In fact, I don't even practice yoga all that much. When I do, I try my damnedest to get into the most difficult poses and chastise myself when I fall out. Maybe I'm mad because I know I'm guilty too.
So how do we get back to the root of yoga? How do we quell the suffering and connect with a power much greater than our own? Is it possible to contort the body, breathe, smile and love all at the same time? And though it might be challenging and sweaty or too quiet and scary in some poses, can we surrender to the practice without self-judgment? Can we expand our awareness? Let our emotions be simply emotions -- temporary, shape-shifting feelings. Experience the challenges -- the inevitable valleys and crevasses of life -- without fear and anxiety. Be easy-going. Neutral. Unattached.
Last confession: I am not easy-going, neutral, or unattached.
In my Monday night classes at the North Shore Yoga Co-op, there's a buzz that's contagious. It touches people around the island and brings an average of fifty bodies into the studio, uniting in a sacred space with stained-glass windows and soaring ceilings. But, I do have a disclaimer on the class description. Funky Flow: An all-levels, sweaty vinyasa class that will challenge you physically and ignite your inner glow. Beware: Lilly plays loud music. Yep -- I'm one of those teachers. Just like the practice itself, I'm a dichotomy. Push your body to try challenging postures, but don't push your body. Get your leg higher in standing splits, but don't worry about the height of your leg. Calm your mind, but listen to this mind-numbing techno beat while you're at it. Three years ago, a woman rolled up her mat in the middle of a sequence. On her way out the door, she asked, "How can you even think in here?" To which I replied, "You're not supposed to."
Yoga might not be a religion, but it is my church. It's not supposed to be exercise, but it is my physical release. When I'm standing on my mat, all the bad stuff dissolves. Yoga is not a drug, but I'm addicted to the way it makes me feel. I wish I could bottle it, clutch it to my heart, and be in a constant state of savasana. Oh wait -- isn't that the point? To literally be bliss? The gurus say it takes a daily commitment, a faithful resolve, and an unyielding love of Self. Yes, "self" with a capital "S." The higher consciousness. The bigger, deeper, more aware You.
Can we start living our yoga instead of our drama?
Leave it to Led Zeppelin to sum it all up:
These are the seasons of emotion
And like the winds, they rise and fall
This is the wonder of devotion
I seek the torch, we all must hold
This is the mystery of the quotient
Upon us all, upon us all, a little rain must fall
It's just a little rain
Maybe we should start by sitting down (preferably without PVC-emitting rubber between your body and the earth), close our eyes, and take a full breath... or twenty. Then decide what we're ready for next. In my case, it's a child's pose. Wearing baggy sweats. Enya on softly. Lights dim. No other people. No expectation whatsoever. And I might fall asleep.