I have had a really shitty week, with all sorts of annoying challenges, sad news and general bad moods all round. Add to that a couple of nights of barely any sleep, and I am a wreck. And this is before we even know how much it’s going to cost us moving our stuff across the pond again. That information will be added to the equation by tomorrow, when I’ve had a few estimates.
So last night, just as I thought I was going to either throw myself on the ground like a toddler or cackle hysterically like a witch, I decided to go to yoga.
Yoga and I have been in a long-term relationship for 17 years, mostly on, but occasionally – albeit rarely – off during certain phases of my life. As I was rolling out my mat, I already felt calmer, and when I smiled my final Namaste, I realised that I hadn’t thought about any of my troubling issues at all for a whole hour. So think whatever you will about yoga (and I have a lot of conflicting thoughts, see below), I think yoga will always be in my life, in one form or another. And that’s just it. Yoga has many faces.
Oh, yoga! I do love you. Nothing else I’ve tried has been able to calm, energise and distract me, all at the same time, in just one hour. As soon as I start practicing, it makes me feel good. But you’ve annoyed me no end over the years, and I’ve had this ambiguous relationship with you for a while. I guess it all started when I saw this NY Times article Yoga Teachers Behaving Badly, which sounded funny, read it and knew I wasn’t alone with my view on contemporary, Western-style yoga. Because that’s the yoga I’m familiar with, the yoga I practice, and the yoga that is so up its own backside it hurts.
Yoga and California go together like dark chocolate and red wine. There is a plethora of yoga studios in the San Francisco Bay Area, and plenty of revered
gurus teachers. So to move into an area with such a positive attitude to yoga and all its forms was very exciting, and I found some great studios with great teachers, whom I’ve really missed since we moved to Austin. Austin being one of the fittest cities in the whole United States, of course, has an even bigger yoga scene than the Bay Area. However, I simply haven’t been able to bring myself to jump in and join a few places. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve suffered from tennis elbow for about 18 months now, and no amount of physio, creams, rest or activity seems to completely heal it, and I’ve had to be very careful with my yoga practice. But to be honest, that wouldn’t have stopped me 10 years ago. I guess I’ve simply hit a wall.
Yoga really drives me crazy. Or, rather, the people who do yoga drive me crazy. I realise I’m one of them by practicing it, but I’ve always felt more like a non-yoga yoga person. And here’s why:
1. Yoga apparel. One word: Lululemon. It seems that I’m the only person in the universe who doesn’t own a single item that bears the iconic emblem. People of all ages wear it, not just to yoga class, but in general. It’s a kind of uniform in this country (I couldn’t detect a difference between Austin and the Bay Area), and looking at the price tag, a total status symbol. To me, paying top dollar for workout gear just doesn’t make sense. I understand that you might want to pay a lot for equipment that takes you up mountains, down icy slopes or through raging waters, but $80 for a yoga top that only sees the inside of a studio? Oh I forgot, of course it also sees the inside of Starbucks and the moms at school pick up.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never mastered scorpion pose. I’m lacking the Lululemon factor.
2. Yoga noises. Yoga people are a noisy bunch. Not only do they talk and gush loudly before and after class (NEVER during class of course; they’re too busy being focused), they also like to breathe heavily, sigh orgiastically, and are not ashamed of other noises escaping various orifices other than their mouths.
2. Yoga teachers. Finding a yoga teacher who is right for you is really hard (especially when you’re a non-yoga yoga person). Most yoga studios have very polished websites with lots of pretty symbols, such as lotus flowers, Sanskrit-inspired stuff, cross-legged creatures, and of course pictures and bios of beaming yoga teachers. Reading those bios to get a little bit of information about the teacher before you try a class is of course a good idea, and it can be a very interesting process, but I guess it can also totally put you off the whole thing. Here are some of my favorite snippets from teachers’ self-descriptions:
“…she encourages her students to maintain the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) during their practice.” Hm, interesting. Does she expect her students to want to lash out in class, and puts that in as her “safety” clause? As in “I know you really want to hit your neighbor, because who doesn’t, but let’s all be nice here and resist.” Yeah.
“…is humbled by the quality of teachers she has been able to study with” – bla. “Humbled”, “devoted”, “honoured” – these words crop up all the time. There’s a touch of the cultish here.
“is a leading expert in the mind-body relationship” (says who??); her “classes emphasize a joint exploration of reality”. I mean, WTF?
There are plenty of other examples that make me chuckle, and that have stopped me from pursuing a career as a yoga teacher (yes, I love yoga so much that I thought about it for a second or two). I taught yoga to kids for a while, which was kind of fun (up to the point where the parents wanted more meditation and calming exercises in class, while I was more of a “see who can contort themselves the most and then try not to laugh” teacher). I couldn’t last a day in yoga school; I found the people at teacher training for kids hard enough to digest.
What gets me the most, however, is the sycophantic element, the herd-like reverence yoga students exhibit towards their yoga teachers. Names are dropped with frequency, and if you haven’t taken a class with x, or studied under y, or been to India with z, you’re obviously not taking your practice seriously enough.
A couple of years ago, I came across a hilariously dark article on the god-like reverence to the yoga teacher, but the link doesn’t exist anymore. A tip: don’t try googling “god-like reverence to the yoga teacher”, unless you need a good laugh.
3. Yoga show offs. So, yoga is meant to be this time that you spend focused on yourself, and only yourself, try to get in sync with what your body and mind need. Yeah, right. You know those classes where you enter, head down, in your non-Lululemon sweatpants, trying to position your mat as far away from the teacher, and even further from any mirrors, and someone is already there, casually doing a handstand, while someone else is discussing the benefits of the one-armed twisted balance pose compared to the twisted one-armed balance pose (or something like that). One of my teachers recently told us (he likes to provide “funny” anecdotes from time to time) that he went grocery shopping, and there were two people discussing yoga in the fruit aisle. One of them apparently dropped to the ground to show how he could still do the splits at age 55. So my teacher (of similar age) dropped down right next to him and did a headstand to prove, erm, I’m not sure what exactly. I silently vomited in my mouth, while the other students clapped and gushed their approval. I’m not sure what I would have done had I been so unlucky to witness this unfortunate display of exactly what yoga is not supposed to be.
Why do you go to yoga classes then, if it annoys you so much?, I hear you ask. That’s a really good question. Weirdly (or actually not, as any real yoga devotee will tell you), I need the group element, the peer pressure, the energy that only develops when there is more than one person in the room. I do yoga at home, by myself, in front of the telly, but I do that simply for exercise and stretching purposes. It is fantastic exercise, after all, strengthening, toning and aerobic too if you push yourself a bit. The thing is though, I never manage to push myself as much, and I never get that whoosh of energy that I get after having
suffered through enjoyed a group session. And of course there are dangers when you do it yourself, as the potential for injury is huge. An interesting, funny and scary to read article is How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body article on the dangers of practicing yoga, which has been causing a lot of controversy in recent years.
Anyway, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I love and hate yoga in equal measures.
And it seems I’m not alone. Namaste Bitches, a television series the NY Times article talks about (you can watch a couple of episodes here) strives to expose and parody what contemporary yoga is: a multibillion-dollar business that “has strayed from its core tenet: conquering the ego. Today’s practitioners, far from renouncing their earthly possessions the way previous generations of yogis did, now pose in pricey designer togs”. Hell, yes. That is exactly what I’m talking about.
And now I’m feeling all agitated. Maybe I should do a headstand? Or maybe I should just slump on the sofa and watch more of this TV show. Namaste, bitches!