The other day I was visiting a good friend who has been in bed for over a month with a back problem. I mentioned to him that years of yoga has helped me stay a little ahead of my own decaying skeleton.
He nodded. Everyone says it’s great for relaxation.
Immediately I began to splutter. Though it is my preferred form of exercise – one of the only ones I can manage with my barely functional knees – yoga is one of the biggest sources of irritation in my life. As much as I love a good vinyasa workout, I usually leave class fuming.
What the hell!?! said my friend, laughing, so I explained.
To take it from the top, yoga is both a physical practice and a spiritual one, an ancient tradition of the Hindu religion, which has a set of scriptures — sutras — associated with it. When I first started doing yoga in the 1970s, it was usually taught by young American seekers who had been to India and come back with names like Sruti Das and Kali Om, ready to hang out their shingles and share the bliss. In addition to coaching us through the postures of hatha yoga (asanas), they passed on the wisdom they had received from their gurus, retelling Indian myths, reading from the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas. This was exotic and sometimes inspiring. I particularly loved chanting Om at the beginning and end of class; I got its Sanskrit symbol tattooed on the inside of my ankle.
As the years went by and yoga spread across the U.S., to YMCAs and strip malls and old-age homes, the practice was translated and Americanized, though everyone agrees that Chattarunga Dandasana is sexier than Low Plank, and Savasana an improvement over Corpse Pose. By the 1990s, you were as likely to hear readings from Marianne Williamson, Louise Hay, or Mary Oliver as Patanjali. I bristled at the self-help but appreciated the poetry. Musical playlists are an American addition to the practice; I’ve been to yoga classes with the Grateful Dead and Prince, and I’m not complaining.
Unfortunately it has now become standard for yoga teachers — often twenty- or thirty-somethings who have taken a 200-hour teacher training — to dispense with both Hindu and non-Hindu texts, and take the opportunity to dole out their own personal advice, combined with trainer- or coach-type patter. Channeling my late father, who tended to express his opinions in the strongest terms possible, I call it The Wisdom of the Morons.
“Keep it on your mat.” This makes me feel like I have something contagious, but I believe it means don’t look around the room and compare yourself to others. Can people possibly be doing this as much as the teachers seem to think they are? I don’t know, I’m not looking.
(And what if I am? I think, oh, isn’t that pretty. This is not a problem.)
“Meet your body where it is today.” As opposed to… what? Oh, I know, this means accept your limitations as they are. So does “This is your yoga.” Likewise, “Don’t be discouraged.” Listen, I was not discouraged when we started, but if you say this enough times I start to feel I should consider it.
One time a yoga teacher read something off her phone that she found very inspiring. It seemed to say one should steer clear of ideas that diverge from one’s own. This struck me as the opposite of any spiritual teaching I ever heard, like yin telling yang to take a hike. I went up after class to ask her where it came from. She said, “I’m not sure, I found it on Pinterest.” Pinterest: the new Bhagavad Gita.
Fortunately, I had another teacher to tell me what to do with my anger. “Breathe out anything that is holding you back, so you can breathe in peace, or love, or whatever.” This actually made me laugh out loud, so maybe it did help.
Of course, I know that expressions like “melt into the mat,” “root down through the feet,” “breathe into your third eye” and “open your heart” are metaphorical, but the micro-narration of poses sometimes verges on the absurd. “Hollow out the bowl of your pelvis and press your navel to your spine.” “Lengthen your ears away from your shoulders.” “Roll your hip toward your ribs.” “Lift your left lung.” My sister, who is not just a CPA but a yoga teacher, says you really can lengthen your ears away from your shoulders. My parents saw this talent of hers early on and took her to gymnastics classes without me.
I know I’m being cranky, so if yoga is supposed to be a cure for crankiness, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, I have no intention of stopping. I carpool to yoga with a calmer friend, and we have found several teachers that we like. One has a musical voice, one is taciturn and straightforward, one plays pop songs really loud and makes yoga a dance. But my friend knows me by now. I see the wary look on her face when we get in the car to go home.
Despite my kvetching, I love yoga. I find the flow of the poses, and the measured breathing that goes with it, to be one of the best things I’ve ever done with my body. I love the sweaty exertion of hot classes, which helps to balance out all the drinking and eating I am so unwilling to give up. In spite of all my irritation, I have many times experienced a profound sense of peace, a sudden connection or insight during my practice.
Meanwhile, I have just returned from a yoga class where I hoped to pick up some last gems of moronic wisdom for this article. But in fact, the teacher offered only a single piece of spiritual advice, and I’m afraid she was right on the money. At the beginning, when we were supposed to set our intention, she suggested that we focus on letting go of all the stories we tell ourselves about yoga!
Perhaps we should just breathe out all this negativity and close by filling our bellies, lungs, and collarbones with a full breath. Exhale through your mouth. The light and the love in me honor the light and the love in you. Namaste.