“Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”
“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to in North America, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood.
But seriously. There’s a pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity hangs in that pause.
Here’s a composite of the speaker:
They’re a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of practice, study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity. It presents as insecurity and ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors.
They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress.
They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. And the often-yawning gap between the two.
They have plateaued in practice several times, and have faced the question of doubling down, reframing, or changing. It’s often unclear which path to take.
They love discipline, but wonder whether they sometimes are repeating self-repressive patterns through a spiritual rationalization.
They’ve been inspired by the manic intuitions of certain gurus, but have seen the long shadows they cast.
They love serving others, but have felt the needy gaze of the student, and the nausea of discovering they are gratified by it.
They love revelations, but know how easy it is to use pleasure to dissociate.
They’re inspired by ancient wisdom literature, but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined.
They cherish the feeling of a practice that transmits an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton, and know it’s not that simple. (Shakes fist.)
They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work, but they’re queasy about yoga being mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They get itchy when they hear younger teachers talk about changing the world through yoga.
They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help #BLM directly.
They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. At times they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.
They got into yoga to feel less objectified, and it worked at first. But now they feel that gaze again.
They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder what litmus tests of belief they would have to pass to really be feeling it, and how many ways there might be to feel freedom anyway.
They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable. They are aware of the colonial roots of modern yoga. They know they’re practicing something from somewhere else on land that belongs to someone else. Their yearning to honour the tradition rises in tandem with their confusion over what exactly that tradition is.
They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.
“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”
Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile. They seem okay with it. That’s cool.
But then there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity.
I feel a prickle when hear their tone. I just figured it out.
I’m thinking: But isn’t that just it?”
Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom?
Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about absolutely everything — exactly what you wanted?
Haven’t you grown to see the inseparability of light and shadow?
Hasn’t it been clear for years that you can’t tell where the teacher ends and the teaching begins?
Didn’t you always need to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether you read about it or were taught it?
Wasn’t it always more about responsiveness than about tasks or goals?
Wasn’t it your uncertainty that got you here?
Did you think that was going to change?
Isn’t it true that freedom isn’t free? Not in the American sense — but that freedom with integrity depends on being deeply bound to the trouble of the world?
Maybe wondering what to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave that provisional name.
Well done. Thank you for still another excellent, thought-provoking essay.
Yup. All I can say is yup.
thoughtful and almost poetic – really good. 🙂
I keep thinking of what John Cage answered to his critics
“If you don’t think this is music, call it something else…”
The practices and techniques of yoga originated a long time ago in India, but that state of yoga arrived independently. It could not have been invented because it’s inherent in all human beings, everywhere. Each era and culture has it’s own way of expressing this.
I imagine that ancient yogis would encourage this process of integration and transformation of tradition. After all, these guys were cutting edge during their time…
I find this argument truly baffling: “They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable. They are aware of the colonial roots of modern yoga. They know they’re practicing something from somewhere else on land that belongs to someone else. Their yearning to honour the tradition rises in tandem with their confusion over what exactly that tradition is.”
At what point is it appropriation? Was it appropriation when the Gandharans started making Buddha statues? Was it appropriation when Vyasa/Patanjali whoever it was decided to borrow Jain metaphysics for the Yogashastra? Was it appropriation when the Devi-Mahatmya brought the goddess into the Brahmanical worldview? Was it appropriation when Shankara decided the Bhagavad Gita was about non-dualism (a claim that was rigorously fought by Ramanuja, and quite successfully at that)? Was it appropriation when the ontology of Vedanta was combined with Islam and helped to produce what we understand now as Sufism? What about when the Hatha Yogis reinterpreted Buddhist tantras through the framework of a mix of Shaiva ones and Vedanta? Was it appropriation when Vivekananda interpreted the teachings of a man he lived with for a short time, a Kali tantrika, through the frame of theosophy? Was it appropriation when Krishnamacharya looked at the still practicing Hatha yogis in India and decided that wasn’t the true yoga, which bore more resemblance to calisthenics? When K. told AG Mohan among others that the third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika contained nothing of value due to its inclusion of Vajroli et al?
I find this line of appropriation tells us little and offers us nothing more than the same narrative we’ve always had: Yoga is good, pure and right, and yoga is from India, the source of all that is good and pure and right in the world, and all of the achievements of India stretching back to the Veda are the creation of an eternal order called Hinduism, to the exclusion of everyone else from the sub-continent. This is at best naive and at worst total chauvinism, and it boggles the mind why people that clearly lean left and are skeptical of any kind of essentialism accept it. There is a question embedded in your statement: Who are we calling to mind when we say someone else if the land is clearly India?
Thanks. The quote is “somewhere” else, which is kinda different.
This is perhaps the most damning indictment of the cultural insensitivities of the rationalist mental model, exhibiting, as it does it’s “great” work and carries out it’s many “functions” total incapability of grasping the many important cultural facets of yoga. The confidence of this assertion is only matched by its ignorance. Check your mental model ‘d’, see if it is really is as resilient as you believe it is. If you’re still feeling brave enough in a few years time maybe you might want to try again? It’s a shame that this page here at Mt Remski doesn’t tend to work like a palimpsest because I’m embarrassed for you. Really, I am.
Mark, I’m surprised you would respond to d’s comments with little more than personal insults.
I would love to hear you back up your vague assertions about ignorance and unresilient mental models.
thank you for sharing your insights matthew. yes, i can relate.
Thank you, Matthew. How true, and yet how intermittent our remembering, that therapy does not equal certainty, and that neither, as an integrative system (which implies difference as well as dissidence) can yoga.
Accurate and insightful observations, thank you Matthew. Coming from a background working in a highly creative industry, before becoming a yoga teacher, I embrace the uncertainty and know that is when the magic is truly happening. After all,Yoga is a ‘state of mind’ so beyond definition via words or concepts. Yoga ( the practice, the industry) is also constantly evolving, so not so easy to box up in a neat or logic satisfying way. Freedom to me is remaining in ‘the flow’ of life and so continually slipping out from under the boxes and names the world would put one into. From this paradigm it is easier to embrace diversity and change, to continually adapt. Living that way, emanating and transferring that through our practice and teaching is surely our contribution to the future of the world.