The concept of karma is one that I have always struggled with.
Truthfully, I probably have a pretty immature understanding of it, as does most of the western world. But still, it is something that comes up in yoga often, and as yoga teachers, it is worth taking a look at.
The general gist of karma is that is that it is the sum total of one’s actions during every point of their existence, and those actions determine what will happen in that person’s future. It is cause and effect on steroids. In a karmic framework, whatever is going on in your life right now is the result of something you have already done, and whatever you are doing now will determine what happens in your future. Which makes pretty good sense, right?
Except for when your child gets cancer. Or you lose your home in a flood. Or you are born with a debilitating genetic disease. Or you live in a war zone. Or you get raped. Or, or, or. I just cannot swallow the pill that any of the above scenarios are the results of some previous action, in this life or another. That just seems too cruel to be possible. Of course I also don’t believe in reincarnation, which is probably the root of my trouble with karma. Karma just doesn’t hold up when you are looking at it through the lens of a single lifetime in which good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people over and over again.
But none of that really matters much anyway, as it is only my personal opinion. And I am definitely not trying to change anyone’s mind about matters of the spirit, especially ones that are so central to over 1.5 billion Hindus and Buddhists and many of my own beloved friends and teachers. Certainly, if we all conducted our lives with a greater attention to the consequences of our actions, the world would be in MUCH better shape.
But there is one thing I absolutely know to be true about karma; if anyone (employer, teacher, student, whomever) asks you to do something for them “in the name of karma,” RUN. Cuz ya know what? That is crap. It is yogic gaslighting. It is manipulation of the worst kind. And although I’m no expert, even I know that’s probably not how karma works.
In my experience, I have seen the karma card played mostly by yoga business owners trying to get people to do work for them for low or no pay. (Remember the boundary blog post? Here is yet another example of that). I am talking about a boss asking someone to work uncompensated while they themselves reap some sort of benefit, and using the concept of “karma” to pressure them into doing it. This line seems to occur mostly with new teachers and teacher trainees, although I have seen it used with experienced teachers as well. And it drives me up the freaking wall.
Don’t get me wrong, there can be many great reasons to work for free if you happen to be in a lucky enough financial position to do such a thing. I happen to be a modern dancer as well as a yoga teacher, and I can tell you that if I had never danced for free, I would never have danced at all. And volunteering your time to help someone (even yoga business owners!) in need, can be noble, humbling, and gratifying. But to use “karma” as means of persuading someone to do these things? That is just wrong. And it is also co-opting a spiritual belief for personal gain which is wronger than wrong.
The choice to engage in work for no or low pay belongs entirely to the individual engaging in it. Their “karma” is theirs alone. It is not a tool for negotiation, certainly not for manipulation.
I am curious: have any of you out there also had the experience of being asked to do something “in the name of karma?” If so, how did it make you feel, and how did you respond? If you are comfortable sharing, I would love to hear your perspective.
For pretty much my entire life, I have dealt with anxiety. I know, I know, me and everyone else on the planet, right? But did you see what I just did in that second sentence? I didn’t even give myself a single transitional phrase before trying to minimize one of the greatest challenges of my existence. And of course I had to toss in some knee-jerk defense mechanism humor and just the right amount of self-deprecation that hopefully I won’t scare anyone off. God, it’s exhausting keeping up with my own nonsense. I hope I am not already exhausting you.
As I am sure many of you already know, severe anxiety absolutely blows. It feels like dread and doom and terror and rage all rolled into one. Like the end of the world is about to happen, while at the same time it already has. And somehow, inexplicably, it happened all because of you! Anxiety can have such a corrosive, permeating effect that at its peak, it leaves room for nothing else; it is like gas filling the volume of whatever container it is in.
To make matters worse, when anxiety does finally start to subside, the depression hangover is at the ready. And of course depression wouldn’t be caught dead without its BFF, shame. They go everywhere together, at least in my mental landscape.
But before I drag you down into the morass, I have great news! There is hope! But it ain’t yoga. Well it ain’t only, yoga, let’s say. For me (and honestly, for most) yoga alone will not cure your anxiety or depression. Can it help? Definitely. Is it an amazingly valuable tool, a powerful coping mechanism, a helpful lens through which to understand yourself? Absolutely. But is it a cure? ‘Fraid not.
Yoga is one tile in the mosaic of mental health. Yes it might be a pretty huge one that connects to thousands of others, but it is not the whole shebang. Yoga is not a panacea. And it is definitely not Prozac. And guys? Some of us need Prozac more than we need yoga.
I realize that I may have just lost half my readers with that last sentence. This is supposed to be a blog about yoga, right? And here this fraud is spewing the big pharma company line! But please; hear me out. I promise that is not what I am trying to do. And this is probably a good time to state the obvious that I am IN NO WAY suggesting that I know what is medically best for anyone besides myself. Hell, I struggle with that most of the time. But isn’t that the point? To struggle, to grapple, to really do the work of figuring your stuff out?
When I was in my twenties, I had a terrible experience with an Ayurvedic doctor. He was well-known in his field and had connections with the yoga studio where I was training, so I had a certain amount of trust in him just because of that. I probably should have known something was off when he passed around nude pictures of himself on an Ayurvedic cleansing retreat to all the teacher trainees to illustrate how some ancient detox technique worked. (Remember my post about how yoga people are so bad at boundaries? Yeah. Case in point.) I think I can speak for all of us there in saying that we definitely did not need to see his junk to get the picture.
And yet, I went to him as a patient! That should give you a sense of how impressionable I was at that point in my life. And I was also deeply ashamed that I was taking psych meds. I thought I should be able to be fine without them, especially as a dutiful yoga practitioner and newly minted certified teacher. It was a time in my life when I was actually feeling pretty good, probably in large part because I was finally on medication to help manage my anxiety. But here is the thing with psych meds; once they get you to a place where you feel healthy and stable, you think you don’t need them anymore because you feel healthy and stable! It’s a real mind trip.
Within ten minutes of my appointment, Dr. Ayurveda (not his real name but I am guessing you caught that) concurred that I did not need to be on anti-depressants and that I had been “forgotten” by the doctor who first prescribed them to me and the medical establishment in general. Ten whole minutes it took for him to get there! Right on. I thought. He was confirming exactly what those harsh, needling voices in my head were also saying. You don’t need to be on this stuff. It is toxic! Do this the natural way! Herbs and yoga, baby!That’s the real medicine! Oh, you sweet little naive twenty-something. If only.
He gave me some herbs, a few dietary recommendations, and advised me to start weaning off the meds, which I was very proud of. I won’t go into detail about the castor oil cleanse he also put me on because it was just as disgusting as it sounds. Pretty soon I was off meds and had dumped my psychiatrist to boot. I felt like a total badass sticking it to the western medicine man. Of course I couldn’t afford to keep seeing Dr. Ayurveda at his exorbitant rates, so I stopped seeing him too. I was sticking it to all the men!
Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for me to relapse. My anxiety blossomed into full-blown panic and showed no signs of going anywhere. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, could barely make it out of the apartment. I thought I was dying. I remember teaching a yoga class having not slept in days, my chest so tight I thought it would implode, and thinking: This is it. I am going to have a heart attack and die in front of all my students. And they had no idea. That is how good I was at hiding it.
I have always thought that “relapse” is the wrong word for what it actually is. It sounds so neat, so clinical, and has an almost rhythmic cadence to it. I can assure you, it is none of those things. It is a ton of bricks falling on you at once. It is drowning, but no one can see. It is flailing. And failing. It is ice-cold blood running at warp speed through constricted veins. It is hell.
I wish I could say that the time in my twenties was my one and only major relapse, that I got back into therapy and stayed on meds, but unfortunately that is not the case. It has taken me many ups and downs and the better part of two decades to fully accept that I am, quite simply, a healthier person on anti-depressants. They give me a buffer, a neuro-chemical safety net that helps me move through life without constantly feeling an imaginary floor fall out from under me. Because I no longer have to expend every ounce of energy just coping, I am able to engage in my life, be more present for my family, my daughters, my friends. I am able to actually be myself, and even occasionally enjoy my own company.
So what does any of this have to do with yoga? A hell of a lot. Two of the biggest components of yoga are self-understanding and self-acceptance. These are the exact same qualities that have led me to know unequivocally that I need medication in order to thrive. By accepting my own shortcomings and giving myself the help I need, I am showing myself love and, indeed, growing in my yoga.
So given all of that, can you see why it just burns me up when I hear yoga folks preach about how bad medication is? Or lead students to believe that yoga will cure them of everything? Or turn western medicine into the devil? Or say that yoga is the “real” medicine? God, how many times have I heard that one. Do you know how that makes people feel who need medication? Like crap, that’s how. And no one comes to yoga in order to feel like crap. No one should have to defend their medical choices to their yoga teachers, and certainly no should have to feel shamed.
I cannot overstate how dangerous it is for yoga teachers to even hint that a student on medication of any sort should try and get off of it. You are not their doctor; that is not your job, and it can do real damage. Some of you may be thinking: Well, duh. Does anyone actually do that? Oh, yes. They certainly do, both subtly and overtly. Most often it is not as obvious as with Dr. Ayurveda, but it often comes across in what teachers say, how they say it, and even sometimes by what they wear. Ever seen those ridiculous Heavily Meditated t-shirts? I really hate those. They read as so superior, so shaming of medication, and so totally oblivious to the fact that many people (like me) meditate and medicate. And wanna know what? The two go great together.
I don’t blame Dr. Ayurveda for my relapse so many years ago. That one was totally on me. I went to him wanting some sort of misguided permission to get off meds, and he played right along. But what if he had acted differently? What if he had honored the boundary of his own practice and suggested that I manage coming off meds with a psychiatrist who actually knew me and was trained to do such things? I still might not have listened, but at least he would have been doing the ethical thing within the scope of his practice.
As yoga teachers, we don’t have a neat succinct code of conduct or ethics to refer back to, which is too bad. But some things should be pretty obvious and universal such as:
Never giving students medical advice
Never making students feel shamed or like they have to hide who they are
Never assuming that what is best for you is best for others
Be careful with what you say and how you say it. Encouraging students to get off medications in any way, subtly or overtly, is unethical. In my book, that is the opposite of yoga. In my book, that is malpractice.
When I was three years old, I broke my leg. It is one of my earliest memories, and I can conjure the sensory experience of it even now just as clear as day. Trying to keep up with some older kids in the play area of Buster Brown shoe store at Northgate Mall, I leapt off a platform and ended up fracturing my right femur. When I first hit the ground, I didn’t feel any pain, just the room spinning all around me. The second thing I recall was intense embarrassment, not only for having wiped out in front of the older, cooler kids, but at the fact that my mom was taking my pants off in front of everyone. It was clear that something was VERY wrong with my leg.
It wasn’t until she had gotten my brother and me into the car to go to the doctor that I remember the pain finally setting in. And it was awful, unrelenting in a way that my three-year-old brain did not have words for. As my mother sped to the pediatrician, I laid out supine on the backseat with my brother crouched in the floorboard below holding my hand. I know that kind of thing isn’t done in these days of seat-belt laws, but I think I would have lost consciousness without it and am very grateful. (It was the right thing to do, Mom. And thank you, Douglas!)
Once we arrived at the doc, I was immediately taken to the examining room. By this point the pain was unbearable, and I begged my mother to keep her hand placed firmly on my leg right where the break was. I know that must have scared her to death since applying any sort of pressure, even the lightest touch to a broken bone sounds pretty horrifying. But I desperately NEEDED her to touch it. And once she did, I swanee the pain disappeared! (For the non-southern folk reading this, “I swanee” means “I swear.” Use it in good health, and you’re welcome!) Of course the moment she removed her hand, the pain flooded back in to the point of overwhelm, but while my mother’s hand was on my leg, I was ok.
Now, I am pretty skeptical about many things related to healing. Unlike lots of my colleagues, I am a big fan of western medicine (although I also know that it has many shortcomings), so my first reaction to hearing someone say that a person’s touch made their pain disappear is suspicion. But hand to heart, my mother’s touch on my broken little body felt like a miracle. It felt safe; it felt grounding; it felt like the only thing keeping me from being swept away. It was the most precious, purest form of touch I can think of.
When I first started writing this blog post about touch, I was thinking specifically about how as a yoga teacher, I engage in the physical contact of touching students with hands on adjustments and corrections. But practically as soon as I wrote the word “touch,” the memory of my mother’s hand on my broken leg came pouring out. And here I was all prepared to go in a completely different direction! I was going to talk about instances of hands on adjustments going too far, about how touch can so easily cross the boundary into injury. But instead a story about my mother wanted to be set free. So I will save that other post for another day and try to figure out instead what exactly my memory wanted to show me.
The main thing I can tell from my own story that speaks to touch in yoga is that touch is extremely powerful, and it would be foolish to ignore just how powerful it is. And like anything with great power, it deserves serious consideration before being administered.
Do you remember learning about interrogative words in grammar? Well, I think as yoga teachers we need the interrogative Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of placing our hands on students. Who are the students in front of us, and is touch even appropriate for them? What exactly are we observing in their practice, and is it possible we are projecting something that isn’t there? When is the right time for them to receive a correction, and when is it better just to let them be? Where are we in our understanding of one another as teacher and student? Why does this student need hands on correction rather than something else in the first place? How can we as teachers best meet our students’ individual needs? And if we can’t answer any of these questions (which is actually ok!), we need to follow another basic grammar rule (this one is about commas): when in doubt, leave it out.
When my mother touched my leg, it was the closest I might ever know of sacred touch. I know I cannot do that for my students, nor would I ever try. They are not my children, not mine to protect from the dangerous world. But I can still approach touch with the respect, inquiry, and consideration that such a powerful tool calls for. In my previous post, I went on and on about why words matter. Well, the recollection of my broken leg reminded me that touch matters just as much, and it can leave a lasting, permanent mark. Lucky for me (and I know that many are not so lucky), that mark is a beautiful one. I will never, ever forget its power. Thank you mom, for such an amazing gift, which I am sure you didn’t even know you were giving. It is everything.
Words matter. They matter so darn much. They are the stuff of poetry and love songs and lullabies, but they can also be so destructive that it will knock your socks off (even those weird yoga socks with the sticky pads and individual toe slots).
One of the things that really gets to me about yoga is how careless we yoga teachers can be with our words. We simply do not hold ourselves accountable to the degree that we ought to, and we do not give full weight (if any) to the negative outcomes that our words can generate.
I’m sure it isn’t news to anyone that words can be destructive. Almost certainly, every person reading this post has been on both the giving and receiving ends of words that have injured, fallen short, deceived, or worse. We are human, and that is what we do. But when we are teaching (any subject really, not just yoga), the impact of our words is magnified. Consequently, the attention and care we should give to our words needs to be magnified as well. Unfortunately, this is often not the case in yoga settings.
About a year ago, I took a hot yoga class at a local studio. Not gonna lie, I’m no fan of hot yoga, but it was the only class that fit with my schedule that day, so I went. I had been feeling stressed out, lethargic, and just generally down, but the class was actually helping me feel so much better. At one point during it, I closed my eyes, savoring a much needed moment of internal calm. At that exact moment (which I am sure was no coincidence), the teacher instructed everyone in the class to open their eyes, saying that losing the focus of the eyes rendered the practice “self-indulgent” (of course she used the sanskrit term drishti instead of “focus” to make her statement sound like it bore some real yogic gravitas). Are you kidding me? Self-indulgent? You mean kind of like spending thirty bucks on a yoga class in the first place? Get real. But it stuck with me. And in me. Even now there are times during classes when I close my eyes and hear that critical voice; Best not enjoy the moment, Lauren, lest you become self-indulgent!
Now, in the grander scheme of things, is this a big deal? Not really. I mean, I know that what the teacher said was crap, and the fact that it still enters my consciousness probably says more about my own fear of being judged than it does about her. But this kind of thing happens in yoga classes ALL the time. Teachers feel compelled to put some sort of moralistic spin on whatever they are trying to get their students to do. She wanted our eyes open because that is what she thought we ought to be doing. She used the term self-indulgent because…actually I don’t know why she did; I don’t live inside her brain. But I can assure you, it sucked.
Fear is another moralistic term that gets thrown around far too casually by yoga teachers. As in, “Fear is the only thing holding you back from (insert yoga pose here).” This is much more dangerous territory than the land of mere “self-indulgence.” This is where you can do some real physical damage. I interpret this type of fear-infused language as a weird type of yoga bullying, about one millimeter away from calling someone a scaredy-cat. It gives me mental images of a teacher in yoga pants chanting I triple-dog-dare ya! to a class full of contrite students. It’s not a pretty picture.
The truth is that as teachers, we have no idea what is keeping our students from doing something, especially in a group setting. What we label as “fear” might be something else entirely, like, I don’t know, a medical condition say? And even if it is fear, who are we to tell them to ignore it or even to conquer it? Explore it maybe, but what if that fear is trying to tell them something that they aren’t ready for at that moment? Or what if just getting up out of bed that morning and making it to class took tremendous courage, and they arrive only to be met with a teacher admonishing them for being too fearful (or self-indulgent)? What if in that group of students you are teaching, there is someone with PTSD, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, in an abusive relationship, just got a cancer diagnosis, just lost someone to cancer, and on and on and on? I can guarantee that it won’t do any of them any good to be told that fear is the only thing holding them back, and chances are high that it will actually cause them harm.
Often, I think that we yoga teachers say stupid stuff because we don’t know what else to say, and silence in our own classes scares the bejeezus out of us. Sure, we may give silence a lot of lip service, but take away the Krishna Das in the background masking every moment we aren’t speaking, and you will find a lot of teachers (and students) freaking out. Words matter. And so does silence. It is absolutely crucial that the words we speak be chosen with care. And in the moments we don’t know what to say, silence will suffice.
In one hour, I am teaching my first group yoga class of of the new decade and my first after starting this blog. I’m nervous! I have decided to make my Journey to the Center of My Own Disenchantment public, and in so doing, I feel a new level of accountability. Now I have to really start walking the walk if I don’t want to be a total fraud. Oh, wait…I wrote a previous post about that already, didn’t I? Ah, yes. It was the very first one! In case you missed it, you can check it out here.
Honestly, the nervousness is kind of a nice feeling. I haven’t felt nervous about teaching yoga in, I don’t know, fifteen years or so? Methinks that may be the sign of a wee bit of complacency.
So here is my plan. In the minutes that remain before I head into the studio, the first thing I plan on doing is re-reading the posts I have written so far. My hope in doing so is that I will, quite literally, keep my word–to you, dear reader, to my students, to myself. And while teaching, I will pay very particular attention to my own words with an emphasis on not falling into old habitual language or descriptions that feel stale.
I will also make sure to arrive early enough to sit quietly for a chunk of time before anyone else arrives and to offer up my prayer for good strong boundaries that I mentioned here in post 3.
Mostly though, I just really want to pay attention. To what is happening in my mind and all around me. To what I see happening in my students’ bodies and what I feel happening in my own. To the feeling of the floor beneath my feet, the breath in my lungs, and how unbelievably lucky I am to be doing what I do.
Wish me luck!
Post-script added after the class: I did it! That’s right! I actually taught an entire class without once using the phrase, “Send your sitting bones back.” It can be done!
I really love my sacrum. In fact, I love it so much, that I accessorize it whenever I take a yoga class with the very sexiest of all the orthopedic medical supplies out there, the sacroiliac belt. It looks like this:
Hot right? Now just imagine it wrapped so tightly across the hips and butt that all the skin, fat, and muscle around it have nowhere to go except for bulging helplessly over all sides. Trust me, it is a look. And it is a look I now proudly sport in practically every class I take, thank you very much!
For those who may not know, your sacrum is the triangular bone at the base of your spine. It is held in place by ligaments and attaches to the pelvis at the sacroiliac joints (stay with me here…I’m promise not to go too heavy on the anatomy). The location of the sacroiliac joints is visible on many of us because of those adorable little indentations on the lower back that I recently learned bear the nickname, “Dimples of Venus,” which is weird but also kind of cute. I’m talking about these guys:
My own Dimples of Venus may seem normal on the surface, but the actual joints that lie beneath them are shot to hell. By that I mean that the ligaments that are supposed to hold my sacrum in place are so loose and overstretched, I sometimes imagine them looking like the waistband on a pair of undies whose elastic is shot.
Enter the sacroiliac belt! The process alone of getting into the thing makes me feel like I am ready for battle, literally girding my loins for yoga! It involves stretching what feels like military grade velcro, pulling it as taut as humanly possible, and connecting it in three places. The salesman who fitted me for it likened it to fastening a seat belt just as tight as I could right around my ass. I guess he did that sort of thing a lot? Who knows.
The squeeze and support that the belt gives me is absolute heaven. For any ladies out there who have given birth, remember how excruciatingly your back hurt during labor? And if your partner or whomever knew how to press in on your hips in the right place with all of their might, you had a tiny bit of delicious relief? This belt is like that squeeze but constant!
Of course I know it is also a crutch. The belt provides external support when what I ultimately need is internal strength. It also limits mobility and is ugly as sin. And the gnashing, ripping sound it makes if I need to make even the slightest adjustment to it is awful (and sometimes embarrassing). But despite its imperfections, my ugly-ass belt helps me feel safe and supported, especially in group class settings, and I am really grateful for it.
In closing, I’d like to thank my sacroiliac belt for teaching me 3 very important things:
All your strength does not have to come from within. It is ok to get external support.
It is very important be able to laugh at yourself. Even more important to fully embrace your muffin top.
Sometimes the ugliest accessories are the very best ones.
Full disclosure, I used to really hate Pilates. When I was in grad school for dance a million years ago, it was a requirement, and the octogenarian that taught it was even meaner than she was old. She would tell the class daily how terrible we were, and would push on my belly so hard I thought I would barf.
But she was a legend in the Pilates world, had studied with Joseph Pilates himself, and there was a sort of hushed awe when people would say her name. Whatever. I absolutely hated it. That also happened to be the same time period when I was getting my first yoga certification, and I was over the moon, smitten, googly-eyed in love with yoga. In my shamelessly dualistic worldview (not very yogic, I know), I pitted yoga against Pilates, and yoga won out big time.
Fast forward two decades, and I feel like I have done a 180 (proof positive that I am still pretty entrenched in duality I guess!) Now I love Pilates. It gives me so much of what I have needed for so very long. Stability. A strong center. Feeling like I can’t so easily be pushed off-kilter. And, oh, how it helps my yoga-injured back! Seriously, I love it. I can’t get enough of it.
But I do feel a tiny bit like I am having an illicit affair, like I am sleeping with the enemy. Currently, I take Pilates classes far more often than yoga, and my body is actually doing better. So what does this mean? Is Pilates better, safer, healthier than yoga? Have I wasted all these years getting the wrong certifications, teaching the wrong classes, doing all the wrong things?? Agghh!! (See how many times I used the word wrong in that sentence? Oh, duality, you ARE a beast!)
If I am honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that my issues with yoga aren’t really because of yoga itself, but rather pieces of evidence about the ways in which my own yoga lacks balance. There are plenty of ways to practice yoga with the same support, stability, and center that Pilates provides. But yoga does require that you work (or in some cases, work less) in order to figure it out. Finding balance is different for every single individual, and since balance is also dynamic, it means different things for the same individuals throughout various moments of their lives. At this point in my life, my own personal balance requires doing much less of the deep stretching that so many of my favorite asanas involve (yes, I know, I’m not supposed to have “favorites,” but you know…DUALITY). I would be lying if I said I am not sad about this loss. But there you have it. Balance isn’t a cakewalk, and neither is yoga.
In terms of teaching, balance needs to come in the way I communicate with students. The same stock phrases I have used to describe poses a million times already simply won’t cut it. Honestly, if I never again utter the phrase, “Send your sitting bones back,” I’d be fine with it. My sitting bones don’t need to go any further back; they need to squeeze in! Meanwhile the student in front of me may need something else entirely, and the student next to them may not even know what a “sitting bone” is. All the words I offer my students should be in service to helping them find their own individual balance. Full stop. Stale language and stock phrases have no place in that discourse.
But back to Pilates! Even as I’m writing this, I am feeling that post-Pilates class buzz, that gentle core ignition that my back and my body love so very much. Of course I am having an affair with Pilates; it is so damn easy to love! Yoga on the other hand, not so easy. Yoga asks a thousand different things from all of us. It asks us to work our asses off as well as do absolutely nothing. It asks us for single-pointed focus and also to clear our minds. It asks us not to run away from ourselves over and over again. And you guys…all that is really hard! But even I, in all my disenchantment and shortcomings, know that it is worth it.
For now however, I am going to get the most out of my Pilates affair. I am going to try to strengthen my center just as much as I can so that I can bring it with me into yoga and everything else that I do. I know that this is much easier said than done. I also know that I have a very long way to go.
When I began thinking about starting this blog, one of the things that really worried me was betraying my students. I would imagine them (and still do) coming across one of my posts and thinking that my disenchantment with yoga meant that I was disenchanted with them. The mental image of that scenario literally makes me want to weep.
I love my students. That may sound sappy or cliched, but it is true. I am moved by their willingness to show up over and over again, try new things, and trust me with their instruction. My students teach me so much, and honestly, if it weren’t for them, it is likely I would have given up yoga long ago.
Part of why I am trying to do this whole Yoga for the Disenchanted thing is to access my truest, deepest feelings about the yoga practice. And right now, the feeling that is sitting on top of it all is disenchantment. I can’t ignore that if I want to teach and practice authentically.
So students, if you are reading this, I hope you know that my disenchantment with yoga is not disenchantment with you. In fact, more and more, it is starting to feel like a gift; one that has the potential to lead me somewhere in my yoga, and consequently my teaching, that is better, truer, richer than ever before. Thank you so so so much for your trust and patience as I work on getting there.
Yoga people are so bad at boundaries. Is this a generalization? Obviously. But is it true? YES.
Lest I come across as a jerk, I’ll just remind you that I too am a yoga person, albeit a disenchanted one, and I find setting boundaries so freaking hard. To be fair, boundaries are hard for most people, so my saying that “yoga people” aren’t great with them is a bit of a cheap shot. But I do think the stakes are higher, especially for yoga teachers, because whether we want to or not, we hold a lot of sway in the eyes of our students.
One complicating factor in yoga is that transcending and ultimately dissolving boundaries is a central value in the yoga tradition (Yoga Sutra 2.51). Now, clearly the type of boundary that Patanjali is talking about does not fall under the same category as, say, agreeing not to talk politics at the Thanksgiving table or check work e-mail after 6 PM. He is talking some serious ego meeting id, individual merging with universe, soul expanding, mind bending stuff! And I can assure you that I (like 99 % of every other yoga teacher you will encounter) am totally unqualified to preach….I mean teach…about such things.
But what I can tell you (because I have witnessed it many times) is that the boundary dissolving sentiments of the sutras can VERY easily be distorted to suit the whims of self-serving individuals. This isn’t exactly news to anyone, I’m sure. All you have to do is google “yoga sex scandal,” and you will get plenty of examples.
Now, these are extreme instances and ones that get a lot of press. The more common ones, however, don’t get talked about so much but in some ways are even more destructive because of the sheer numbers of people they affect (this Yoga Journal study showed that roughly 20 million Americans practice yoga). I’m talking about when yoga teachers do things like: give medical advice that they are in no way qualified to provide; teach to a group as though every individual in the class holds the same political, religious, and social beliefs that they do; act like a therapists when they are not.
I’ll be frank; as a teacher, I have done all of these to some extent. I have “suggested” possible causes of pain for students when really what they needed was a medical opinion. I have made assumptions when I shouldn’t have. I have repeated things my own therapist said to me as though I knew what the hell I was talking about. And as a student, I have overtly or unconsciously asked my teachers to do these things for me. I have wanted them to cure me, to validate me, to praise me, to nurse me. And that ain’t right.
I think most of the time, we don’t even realize when we are crossing boundaries in the actual moment we are doing so. At least I don’t. Then once I do realize it, it is very hard to not let the shame spiral kick in. And there is no feeling more likely to ignite my own boundary obliteration quite like shame, and so the cycle continues. So for the foreseeable future, I think I will try starting every class I teach with a quiet prayer for good clear boundaries. May I respect them for my students, my family, my friends, and most importantly, for myself.
In my last post, I talked a little about losing my own voice as a yoga teacher and feeling like a big ole fraud. If you missed it, feel free to check it out below. But what I didn’t mention in that last post was the growing suspicion that everyone around me was a fraud as well.
Several years into teaching, I started having a really hard time taking class from any but a small handful of teachers. I was so critical of other teachers that I could barely focus on myself. Of course I never voiced this criticism aloud, but I can assure you that it was a riotous symphony in my brain. I may have looked all calm and namaste, but inside I was screaming:
How could you give THAT person THAT adjustment?! Do you not see her knee turning in, butt sticking out, shoulders at her ears, crunched lumbar spine?? Are you trying to send her to the operating table? And are you kidding me with that terrible Sanskrit pronunciation?? It is SAVasana, ok! Not SHIVasana!!We are talking corpses here not deities!!!
To say I was judgy is….an understatement. And to say I was angry…yes, just a little.
It was like some debilitating form of yogic paranoia. But beyond anything, it was very isolating and gave me a great excuse to not go to class.
The fact of the matter is that we are all frauds to some extent. I mean, I was once asked to teach a class called “Rock your Ass-ana” for God’s sake. Now if that’s not “authentic” yoga, then I don’t know what is! It’s ok. We can laugh at ourselves when we are stupid. And that class title was STUPID. Bless my sweet, sanctimonious, twenty-something year old heart for recognizing it even then and refusing to teach it.
But seriously, at some point or another, we are all frauds. The dangerous frauds are the ones who never recognize their own fraudulence or seek to do anything about it. And there are certainly plenty of those in yoga, as there are in every other sphere of life.
I am trying to face my fraud head on so I can get back to the yoga I love. And if I can be patient enough with myself to try and do this, it is incumbent upon me to show that same respect to other teachers as well. We all need the room to be a bit of a fraud. And we all need time to figure it out.