Reality Check

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 offΒ 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.

Wanderlust Austin

Wanderlust Austin

DSCN0733

Me and my gal Michelle

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.Β 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.

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Categories: Etcetera, humor, On the Road, Philosophy, That's Life!, Travel, Truth, Uncategorized, Writing, Yoga | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

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27 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. beisner

    been practicing mindful meditation which is all about stillness,quiet, breathing. Some of my movement meditation tapes incorporate hatha yoga. And all about being mindful of your body and listening to your body.

  2. Rabbi Kafka

    Amen, Robyn! I have had this impression for many years. I was fortunate to have learned basic yoga asanas in the late 70s from a woman who had studied with Iyengar. But much of what I have seen each time I tried to take a “class” as an adult has been as you describe it. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t me getting “old,” but rather the ineptitude of the “teachers.” Let’s hope that at least there is some aerobic benefit for the legions of people flocking to this stuff, but yeah, don’t call it yoga. πŸ˜‰ Take care. Love to Noah!

    • Hi Rabbi!

      Nice to hear from you. I invite you to come take our Quiet Mind class here in Sharon at http://www.breathejoyyoga.com on any Wed. night. Just let me know when you want to come (via email). You will discover why our little studio is such a beautiful gem in this little town. Or, if that time and class doesn’t work, look at our schedule and let me know when you want to come. You would love it here and our teachers (all very gifted). Of course, when I am home, please come to my classes too….I would love to have you as part of our special community…Love to all at Temple Kol Tikvah!

      • Rabbi Kafka

        Robyn, thanks for the invitation. I’ll be in touch.
        Here’s something you will appreciate: We have successfully incorporated prayerful/meditative SILENCE into the beginning of every learning session with the children at Kol Tikvah. What a concept. πŸ˜‰ I am filled with gratitude every time.

      • That’s great Rabbi Kafka. I look forward to hearing from you — breathejoyyoga@gmail.com

  3. Liam

    Wow. I don’t know much about yoga, but when I first started hearing about “hot yoga”, I thought it was an oxymoron. It seems yoga is being used as a way to advertise what are really just fitness classes. Well, fads come and go. I hope there will always be people around who want to help others to relax, breath, and meditate.

    • Hi Liam,
      I agree…..hard to stay relaxed when it’s 95 degrees and you’re uncomfortable. And you are right on about yoga and fitness….by equating the two, people now think yoga means sweating and working out. My philosophy on this is that if you want to work out, work out. If you want to practice yoga, you gotta carve out a separate slice of time. And, if your yoga helps you get fit well…that’s just an added benefit. Hope you keep on reading and weighing in πŸ™‚

  4. Wonderful, Robyn! Do not quit teaching! You need to pass on the tradition of Yoga.
    May I copy this blog and share it with Maha Yoga teachers and students? It would be very inspiring for them to hear this from a graduate of the Maha Yoga Teacher Training.
    Diane

    • Hi Diane,
      That means a lot, especially coming from you! You can absolutely copy and share this blog. I would be honored. See you soon! XOXO

  5. Iris shore

    Robyn, well said. Trust me u & I aren’t the only ones who feel this way. I have a mental check list I use, I will always give a teacher the benefit of the doubt, they pass or they fail. I know what I need from a class and have certain expectations. Unfortunately I think the younger generation is looking for instead of listening for …. Everyone is so plugged in they haven’t found that scared space that goes tick tock, actually the heart goes blub blub. Keep the faith.
    Warmest regards, iris

    • Hi Iris,
      Thanks for writing. Are you still in Buffalo? Hopefully you found a studio there? Keep the comments coming. Hopefully our paths will meet again soon.

  6. donna

    I gave up when my favorite studio in Boston doubled their space and held a class with 60+ people and a teacher with a microphone. I couldn’t find her, by voice or sight. Another class there ended with a (very experienced and well known) teacher in a handstand, full lotus,incorporating bastrika. No one was doing it- no one could. But it was quite the show.

    Another class I took in Florida was full of teacher trainees led by a visiting teacher.At one point he yelled “More! More!” and had lost HIS breath as he pushed his students on and on. They all had looks of anguish on their faces because they could not do what he was asking of them.

    You’re so right on, Robyn. Many teachers talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.Since I left Sharon I have looked and looked for a kula to call my own, to no avail, and there is a studio in Boston a mile or less in every direction too! I practice in my bedroom or at the gym when the yoga studio is empty.

    I miss Breathe Joy and Maha!!

  7. They/we are out there, and we grow albeit at a different pace. Keep letting go, the next moment will be different.

    • Hi Ken,
      Thanks for your response! I agree….letting go is key and so is staying in the now. I can tell you this much, I am enjoying the journey and it has certainly helped me become a better yoga teacher on many levels. Best to you.

  8. I appreciate your honesty and value your opinions. I have had the blessing of practicing with gifted, caring, and thoughtful instructors who take it slow (while at times with some sweat and vigor), who focus on the breath throughout the practice, who teach the yamas and niyamas in ways that make sense in real life, who honor the many gurus and deities…so that thier students are able to live and feel yoga, in it’s phenomenal essence, both on and off the mat.

    It is somewhat discouraging to envision yoga as you’ve described it – hot, fast, lacking stillness, clarity of mind, and even savasana – yuck! But, I encourage you to stay hopeful and to continue to teach yoga as you believe it should be taught and learned. There are many others out there who also teach this way and value learning it this way. It is worth it to carry on because there is so much to be gained through yoga as you see it, and as I, too, see it. We can only practice it, both on and off the mat, and teach it as best we can, and hope it catches on, even if it is slowly, or even if ‘the others’ gain more momentum.

    I left my job last late Summer to teach yoga to children full time. I hope to teach them to find stillness, clarity, confidence, compassion, strength, grace….

    Good luck!

    • Hi Monique,

      Good luck to you too and thanks for writing. I do know there are a lot of great teachers out there but I think yoga has become so commercialized in the US (based on my first-hand experiences) that it has become more of an alternative to fitness than yoga — speaking generally of course. I just hope that the millions of students flocking to yoga will eventually seek out the real deal. I too teach children and my children’s program, called Pretzel Kids, is growing nationally. Check it out if you’d like at http://www.pretzelkids.com! All the best!

  9. margarita.tulchinskaya@tch.harvard.edu

    Dear Robyn,

    I totally agree with you about comercializing of Yoga throughout…..

    Even though I have not written to you, I closely follow your writings, news – miss you a lot.
    I’m happy for Noah and you. The pictures are great. When are you comming back?

    Rita T.

  10. Marcie

    I’m nodding my head as I’m reading – yes..yes..yes. And – it’s sadly disappointing to see the ‘westernization’ of this healing..centering..grounding ancient practice and true art. Thanks for writing about it here. And – happy travels!

  11. Ade

    Hi Robyn,

    The martial arts went through an era of commercialization similar to the one you described above for the yoga ‘industry’. Some of the more dubious offerings are even referred to as mere ‘belt factories’ which refers to the attainment of graded coloured belts. Caveat emptor comes to mind.

    Looking forward very much to the arrival of the BETM tour to my home town, Vancouver in British Columbia. (Incidentally, if you come here then you’ll be visiting the home town of Lulu Lemon! Founder Chip Wilson has a brand new gorgeous residence overlooking English Bay.).

    Saw Billy on Broadway and came away so inspired by the performance that I bgan taking up ballet 2 years ago on a daily basis, in my mid-50s. Can explain it and have got the words πŸ™‚

    Shall be looking out for your son’s performance schedule for when he’s here.

    • Hi Ade,
      Thanks for your comment. So true. lululemon has had its own set of problems! Looking forward to Vancouver too — a beautiful city!

      • Ade

        Welcome to Vancouver! Enjoy the blossoming cherry trees… not in the downtown core but just over the bridges to the south of downtown.

      • Ade in Vancouver BC

        I feel like I won the lottery last evening … I had the privilege of witnessing first hand Master Parets’ heart warming performance, which was originally slated for the next evening, lucky me!

        After the show I also got to meet the amiable Mr. Parets in the lobby. [I suspect that he probably thought that I am a bit daft had he overheard me enquire ‘I’d like to meet Noah’s mother, Sharon. Is she nearby?’ (‘No; but his father, Mass, is standing right beside you!’) LOL]

        And speaking of things yoga, the day before I happened to have spotted one of the ballet gals’ moms toting a fully stuffed LL shopping bag (No, I don’t mean LL Bean!)

        God Bless!

  12. Hey, Robin…Good to hear you! My lil’ studio, too, focuses on slower, meditative and mindful practice with infusions of Yoga philosophy. If we were in this to get rich we would surely have abandoned ship long ago. Keep the faith…there is a collective yearning for respite from the pace of life, the media’s intonations to go ever faster, get more, be more ( as if we could!), the endless noise.

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