Yoga Sutra 1.8: “Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.”
As Sri Swami Satchidananda explains it: “In the twilight you see a coiled rope and mistake it for a snake. You get frightened. There is no snake there in reality; there is a false understanding. But still it created a terror in your mind. It is not only valid knowledge that creates thought waves, but erroneous impressions also.”
We all have things we think to be real or true. Our relationships, our careers, whatever it may be that defines us. But what happens when your truth isn’t quite as you thought it was or should be. What then is the truth? What is real?
I’m going out on a limb here and I will probably piss off some yogis and yoga teachers in the process. But I don’t care. Gotta speak my truth.
And I know, I’ve probably already lost about half of you already…..but stick with me here. It will all make sense in a moment.
I left home in April 2012 and have been touring the US (soon Canada) ever since. Pretty much the only thing that’s kept me somewhat grounded in this tour de force is my yoga practice. Not the sweating, twist-yourself-in-knots type of practice that many Americans consider yoga, but the breathing and simplicity of the practice. Sometimes I just stand in mountain pose so that I can truly feel my feet on the ground. Other times I roll out my mat and do what feels good. And still other times I go to a yoga class. That’s where the truth starts to become fuzzy.
In every city I go to, I search for a yoga class that isn’t hot or power or rock ‘n roll or in a sling shot. I look for the studio that’s been in town the longest or has a teacher older than 19. I’ve been to studios from Los Angeles to New York City and many places in-between including, in no particular order: Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Vermont, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Some of the studios have been chains, others just small spaces. I can tell you this for sure: yoga ain’t what it used to be. Everyone has a gimmick and everything is FAST. Yup, that’s right: FAST. In all but a couple instances, the classes have been crammed with as many poses as the teacher can think up in an hour, regardless of whether he or she knows how to safely get students from one posture to the next. Music is usually blaring (not that I have anything against loud music, but sometimes it hinders the ability to quiet the mind). The students look like they are competing in a yoga fashion contest hosted by lululemon (sorry, it’s true). Teachers talk incessantly even when they have nothing to say. Most classes have next to no warm-ups or cool-downs. They usually don’t mention the breath or the mind. One had no savasana at all.
Here’s the thing: This is what people want or at least think they want. This is how teachers are learning to practice and instruct.
It’s a sad but honest reflection of our culture. As a society, we don’t know how to slow down but yet we want to do things that are good for us. So we do yoga. Even if we don’t know what that is. We also teach yoga even if we don’t know how or even have an inkling of an idea of the centuries old healing practice that we are passing down.
Let me back up here for a moment. I opened my yoga studio nine years ago. At the time, I was pretty much the only Hatha studio around. Since then, there are now studios within 10 minutes of mine IN EVERY DIRECTION. All but one offer strictly hot, power yoga classes. I’m not even counting the gyms and YMCAs which all also offer yoga. In order for all these studios and classes to serve all those students, there have to be enough teachers. So almost all studios now offer training courses, many of which are franchised or canned (but the students don’t know this). I am not saying these programs are bad or that all teachers don’t know what they are doing. I am just trying to lay it all out there. Teachers are being pumped out faster than you can say Patanjali and students are coming to classes in droves regardless of whether the class is good or bad. They hang on the teacher’s every word even if the teacher has no idea what he is doing or saying. Students think that if they do enough chaturangas, they are doing yoga. Heck, they might even think that 20 chaturanga push-ups will quiet the mind. Skip it, they probably don’t know that stilling the mind and yoga are one and the same.
It’s not just happening in studios. Look at yoga conferences and festivals. Students flock to these big events where the classes are taught by those I now call rock star yoga teachers. These are teachers who have become “famous” in the yoga world and have large followings of students. Some of these teachers are actually very good at teaching yoga. But most are just overwhelmed with their own egos and the large base of students who seek them out in a convention center packed with 150 other adoring students. Most of these teachers are under 35 years old and many have been teaching this ancient healing art for less than eight years (that’s my unscientific poll but I betcha I’m right on the money here). I’ll admit it: there was a time when I aspired to teach at these big conferences. When people pay money to come to your classes or workshops, even if the money goes to charity, it feeds the ego. No getting around it. But after witnessing what I have over the past eight months, I want none of this.
It all hit home in Austin, Texas. Michelle, one of my closest friends, lives there. We did our yoga teacher training together at Maha Yoga Center with a gifted and wise teacher. For the past four years Michelle has been whining about the yoga scene in Austin. I keep encouraging her to teach because, well, she’s the real deal. She has tried but can’t seem to find a studio to teach at — somewhere she can keep it real. She said all the studios are hot or power or fast or gimmicky. She said all the studio directors and teachers don’t know a thing about anatomy and sure as heck can’t teach a breathing technique. I didn’t believe her. I mean, really, Austin? It’s a pretty progressive city with lots of yogis. Since I try to take a class in every city I visit, I was determined to hit a studio in Austin with my yogini friend Michelle. We picked a studio named after its famous circuit of yoga festivals: Wanderlust. It looked hip and fun. Let’s just stop there….We walked into a noontime class and had to restrain ourselves from laughing out loud. The skinny teacher in perfect yoga clothes had us rolling on the floor, literally. We rolled and then jumped up. Rolled and jumped up. Rolled and jumped up. We did a few fast poses in-between the rolling and jumping and then she bid us adieu. No rest for the weary. No savasana.”That wasn’t even on the top five worst classes in Austin,” said Michelle as we walked out. I raced back to my hotel to roll out my yoga mat. My nervous system was completely out of whack.
I know, I know. To each their own. But really, call that what you want, but don’t call it yoga. To me (and you are welcome to disagree) yoga was and is about quieting the mind, breathing, finding stillness, feeling grounded and balanced. It’s about moving in a way that makes sense and is rooted in anatomy and yogic science. It’s about being honest with yourself and your students. It’s about knowing your limitations. It’s about slowing down so that you can listen and hear your own inner voice: the voice of intuition. It’s about finding stillness amid the activity. Try doing 20 poses on both sides in an hour. There’s simply no time for stillness. Police give fast drivers speeding tickets. Who is going to slow you down in life? Just you.
Witnessing the yoga scene around the country has caused me to consider closing my studio on several occasions. I’ve become skeptical of myself. I mean, what is my purpose for being here when I’m losing the battle to hot yoga studios, fast classes, and DVDs/podcasts that promise results in 20 minutes? I have often wondered if perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. But then I come home and realize that what we are doing here is worth it. Regardless of whether we’ve got five students or 500.
This is real.