Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mesquites and Mangroves...More on the Instagram Challenge

In my last post, "No Pictures for this Yogi," I addressed MY OWN reluctance to engage in the kinds of Instagram and Facebook Yoga Pose challenges that have been circulating online. I did so because I had been wrestling with my own demons, ego and temptation, and I wanted to clarify for myself why I felt the way that I did.  As a writer, I often find that the only way for me to make sense of things is to give them words, and my last blog was my exploration of a topic that was unsettled for me. When I went on to publish, it also became public, and since it did, it has sparked a mountain of reaction.

Some of the feedback has been very positive. Many people sent me notes to let me know that they felt the same, but much of it has been negative. Some people who I love, admire and respect felt judged for posting pictures, and they felt like the blog was aimed at them. Today's post is meant to clarify anything that may have been misunderstood.

Let me be clear:  I did not in any way mean to imply that there is anything intrinsically negative, demeaning, shallow or superficial about taking or posting pictures in beautiful yoga poses. I know that many of you have used these challenges as tools to help you grow your practice physically, emotionally and spiritually. I know that for many of you it has been more of a lesson in humility than ego as you post pictures of yourselves in less than perfect alignment. I know that for many of you it has helped you reclaim a sense of place, a feeling of belonging to a community, a visibility that you may have shied away from for years. Those are all beautiful and amazing benefits, and I honor your willingness to engage in that exploration. In some ways I even envy your ability to do so in a way that is uplifting.

FOR ME, engaging with yoga through pictures like this would not have been healthy. I say this with the utmost humility and recognition that I have much inner work left to do. For many years, I bought into the myth of superficiality that is pervasive in our culture. I believed that if I was thin enough and pretty enough, if I wore the right shoes and the right brand names, that I would be happy. When I began to practice yoga, I became less concerned with how my body looked and more concerned with what it could do. But even then, I felt like if I could stretch far enough, balance well enough, flow freely enough, assume inversions, bend backwards, and bind, I would be satisfied. I spent hours working towards a "perfection" that I know is completely unattainable.  I am not proud of those attitudes. It has taken a lot of effort and self inquiry to overcome them and embrace the truth that spirit and consciousness resist form and tangible expression. Nevertheless, I remain profoundly aware that the demon is not vanquished but merely subdued, and I know that for me a challenge that requires me to post pictures of myself everyday would feed the worst of me, not the best.

Just like plants and trees, human beings derive nourishment and find what they need to grow in various ways. Some trees, like the Mesquite, throw down a tap root 60 feet deep. They gather what they need to fulfill their potential from dark and unseen places. Some trees are more like the Mangrove. They spread their roots along the surface above the ground and can nourish themselves in the open air visible to all. Both trees are beautiful, both are growing, both are gathering what they need to thrive and develop.  It seems that yogis are like this too. I am more of a Mesquite, but that doesn't make me value the Mangroves any less.

I think this is an important discussion. If there is one thing we ought to have gained from our yoga practice, it is the awareness that nothing should be beyond examination. One of my teachers talks frequently of the necessity for "ruthless" self-observation. If after engaging in that kind of inquiry you find that an Instagram challenge is useful to you, I applaud you, and I will be the first one to "like" your post. But I hope that as a community, we can also bring some awareness to why these poses are valuable. Perhaps a sentence or two about what it means to you, about what you hope the observer will "see" in it, about your journey. Let's give it a context and help people understand what this practice is all about.

Monday, March 17, 2014

No Pictures for this Yogi

“True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life. Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived. Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming. Yoga is designed for a vast and profound purpose, and for it to be truly called yoga, its essence must be embodied.” — Aadil Palkhivala

If you are on Facebook or Instagram, you have no doubt seen images everyday of beautiful yogis doing amazing and seemingly impossible poses. Many of my dearest friends are doing this, and they are exquisite, their pictures artistically staged, perfectly executed examples of some of the most challenging yoga asana.

Everyday, sometimes several times a day, I see these pictures, and I am tempted to jump into the game, to grab a friend and make her a photographer and strike my own poses. I have spent many years learning and often teaching the nuances of alignment to get there, so why not show it off? 

Let me be clear that I am not judging anyone who is posting these pictures. I know that you are having a great deal of fun, and I know the discipline, focus and inner exploration it takes to create these shapes in the body, but FOR ME, this would be an unhealthy game.

For me, yoga is much more than asana or poses. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras lays out an eight limbed path to "Yoga" which he defines as "Chitta Vritti Nirodhah" or the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. This means far more than simply quieting the thoughts that appear unbidden. It means learning to connect with that still, silent, peaceful aspect of one's Self that is eternal, infinite and whole, and in doing so, uniting the finite self with Infinite Consciousness.  This seemingly intangible, esoteric ideal, according to the Sutras, is achievable through rigorous adherence to the eight limbs: Yamas (restraints), Niyamas ( observances), Pranayama (control of the energy body through breath), Asana, Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (disciplined focus of the mind),  Dhyana (the flow of meditation) and Samadhi (a state of undifferentiated, non-dualistic "being"). 

One of the side effects of rigorous practice of all eight limbs is that we can gain incredible control over the body and mold it into the kinds of poses that are appearing in these pictures. It is tempting for me to allow the ego to run amok with the desire to achieve perfection in them and to glory in the attainment of them, and I have fallen into this pattern at various times throughout my practice. It is a subtle and powerful attraction that can turn our efforts into simple showmanship, our deep inner work into surface display, and I am wary of falling into that trap. 

Furthermore, it sends a message to our non-yogi friends that yoga IS about the poses. As a teacher and studio owner, the most common fear that I encounter from those who are coming to class for the first time is that they will be unable to do various things: that they can't touch their toes, that they are inflexible, that they can't sit in a cross-legged position. These insecurities may have kept them from trying yoga for many years, thereby preventing them from enjoying the rich benefits of the more subtle aspects of the practice. This is not the perception of yoga that I want to promote. I want people to know that Yoga is for everyone, and that the ability to shift into any particular position or pose is unimportant. As long as safe alignment is practiced, as long as breath and movement are united, as long as the mind is focused, anyone can do yoga and experience the same transformative results as those who can do the most difficult poses. 

For me, yoga is a journey that can't possibly be captured in a picture, or even in 30 pictures. To truly see my yoga practice, you would need to crawl into my mind for my 90 minute sadhana everyday. You would have to wrestle my demons and insecurities with me, observe the nuances of sensation in the most subtle energetic experiences, know the bliss when I achieve equanimity even for a moment on the mat, sense the shifts from pose to pose, breath to breath. For me, Yoga is about what I can become, not what I can do. It is about who I am, not what I look like. It is about practice, not perfection. 

These are the things I want you to know about yoga. I haven't figured out how to film any of that on camera, but when I do, I'll be sure to launch my own 30 Day Instagram Challenge.