Why I’m Still on the Yoga Boat: A Few Notes
I’d like to bite at a question Diane Bruni asked on the Yoga and Movement Research Group Facebook page, months ago:
Why are we still on the yoga boat? Given all the scandals, disillusionments, power dynamics, and injuries to tissues and psyches, why do we still care?
(This was before YMRG exploded in both numbers and flash-fires of hostility. Had she asked last week, she might have added: “And why are we still on the Facebook yoga-group boat? Isn’t it burning and sinking? Shouldn’t we be swimming?”)
When Diane and I present together on the more difficult sides of yoga practice and culture, I usually open my bit by saying something like: “Diane and I are coming to this from a combined 45 years of practice and teaching, so we’ve seen some things. The danger with a day like this is that we could just toilet our mid-life crises into your laps. We’ll try not to do that.”
And then we try to balance our critiques of how repetitive stress affects tissues and learning relationships with our sense of wonder and possibility. We’re here, after all, because we love yoga.
The shadow side of that question might be: what else are we going to do?
This an important thing to consider when the dominant propaganda of the precariat economy is “Surrender to your higher self and follow your truth.” It would be more honest if they said, “Surrender to your freelance uncertainty, and try to look abundant as you try to sustain your relevance.”
It can be liberating for those of us in this ambivalent mid-life position to acknowledge our age and investments and sunken costs and narrowing exit possibilities.
These things hem us in, but have their positive side as well. The more you’ve invested in an art form, the more you’ll need to continue exploring within it, creating meaning as you go.
I collect trolls. I’m not talking about loyal critics, to whom I’m indebted, but about people who make shit up. Even then, “troll” can be the wrong term, because outright lies can carry a shadow of truth. So I’ll call this one guy a half-troll. One of his favourite pastimes is to use several pseudonyms to crow that I’m writing about yoga because I couldn’t get another job except for flipping burgers.
Funny thing is: he’s partly right. Those were the breaks.
Part of why I’m on the yoga boat is because when I exited my second cult in 2004 I was 33 and hadn’t completed college. I’d had moderate success as a writer before that period, and had kept it up, but there wasn’t any money in it. Although there had been. In the early 1990s in Canada — if you were white and straight especially — you could make your way modestly in literary fiction easier than a decade later. It took me several post-cult years to really get that the writing world had changed — not the white/straight part so much as the fact that content hosts had figured out how to almost completely stop paying for content.
I’d been exposed to yoga and loved it, and taking a training seemed to be a no-brainer. Back then you could easily find a job upon getting a diploma. Or you could make one up, especially where I was living in rural Wisconsin. I opened a studio with my partner at the time and threw myself into it. I loved every part of it: personal practice, community building, continuing education in yoga therapy and ayurveda. Owning studios in Wisconsin and then in Toronto in 2006 locked my personal and professional identity up with the yoga world.
We get older and things change and alternative doorways close down. By 2012 I was injured, and a lot of people around me were as well. I realized my movement training was naïve. There was no way I could physically keep up with my schedule of 15 classes per week.
As my body pain increased, I began to teach more restorative classes. I also retreated into more writing. I consider this a kind of jnana yoga, though many disagree. They too, are sometimes right. Sometimes I write to avoid yoga. It’s tricky, because I can always claim it’s inner work, but at times it just retrenches my conditioning.
As I researched yoga injuries and abreactions to practice, new psychological doorways opened for me to explore. Namely: how do we sometimes use yoga and meditation to reinforce or bypass the very patterns we would most like to change?
I’ve told this story before: the WAWADIA? project was mainly inspired by conversations with my partner Alix Bemrose, but another key prod was the observation of my friend Scott Petrie, who said: “If you needed to hurt yourself, yoga would be a socially acceptable way of doing it.” What an amazing rabbit hole.
I’m still on the yoga boat partly because my half-troll is right about the burgers, but also because I believe yoga is self-inquiry, and yoga culture provides amazing tools towards this end, including the opportunity to critique it. I engage the yoga of meta-yoga. (That is an obscenely pretentious sentence. I’ll own that.)
What other artform flaunts its own paradoxes so blatantly: between improvement and acceptance, discipline and freedom? What other form of inquiry into conditioning shows how inquiry is bound by conditioning? Okay, the postmoderns did it, but it was disembodied and often joyless. I was there. I still have jackets in my closet that smell like Gauloises.
Sometimes I daydream about teaching movement/asana again, but really, there are too many geniuses out there doing it now in an intensely crowded field of new research. I would have to go back to asana school for years to feel competent again. And when I take classes with rockstars like Diane or Peter Blackaby or Daniel Clement or Donna Farhi or Frey Faust I’m like “What’s the point? This is not where I can add value.”
The real movement professionals are equal parts elite athlete and zen master. That’s not me.
I’m also somewhat over it, to be honest. I got what I needed out of asana practice personally. It woke me up. I still practice here and there, but I also have a blast swimming or playing handball with other middle-aged men, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.
I know other people are wired differently and will get a lot of juice out of life-long refinement and exploration on their mats. I admire and respect them. I don’t think I can do what they do in a healthy, non-obsessive way. My asana arc has gone from dissociative-disembodied in my late twenties to an acutely embodied late thirties, to a mid-forties meh, I’m embodied amongst other bodies, and so what: because climate change. That’s fine with me for now.
As much as I wonder whether I should just mothball the laptop for a year and commit myself to daily classes with Monica Voss or Susan Richardson here in town, it’s unlikely. There are two children running around now. Plus, weird things happen. Like I flew into Albuquerque on July 14th this year, excited to be a student of Donna Farhi for the weekend, and to round up my interviews with her. But that was the same day that Michael Stone fell into a coma. There was no way I could sit there and watch my breath and sensations, which were both screaming at me. I had to do a different yoga that day, and since, really.
For now my seat on the yoga boat is as an analyst for how things change, and why. I can still practice and meditate and reflect. That is still labour, and if it does or doesn’t have value, people will let me know.
But here’s the biggest reason I’m still on the boat: I love the personal, social, and increasingly political moment called the YTT. I’m grateful to work in that context.
Say what you will about industry standards and commodification. You’ll be right about a lot of things, and I’ll agree with you. For my part I’ve also seen that every YTT I know provides space that doesn’t exist anywhere else: space to consider the meaning of everything in one’s life, from bones to soul. People wind up there during life transitions: after divorces, deaths, illnesses. They show up with a level of existential gravitas that is rare, and which opens them up to discussing the great mysteries of philosophy and esotericism.
Yes there are probably too many programmes, and running YTTs often involves beating back against hidden financial pressures with a smile, and the teacher market is saturated, and trainings can be thin on diversity and accessibility. These are all problems to be worked on. And when they are, the contemplative environment of the YTT can, I believe, be a quietly powerful influence on the broader culture.
There’s some exciting lemonade. The YTT industry has been created and sustained by consumerism, gentrification, and the pressures of a fragmenting labour market. Those who go into these programmes expecting to professionalize will be increasingly aware of all of this. Can this provoke a tipping point in attitude?
What I believe will happen, over time, is that more and more serious students will look at the YTT as personal enrichment, and that that if they want to convert that enrichment into work, they’ll look for and create possibilities in yoga service, rather than yoga sales. They’ll be less interested in getting yoga right than in figuring out how they can share it.
Finally, there’s all the new content. Within a few years, how many YTT programmes will include units on trauma sensitivity? Who won’t want to be able to offer a trauma-sensitive environment?
Can trauma-sensitivity discourse be the gateway to broader considerations? Its premises, after all, point to intersectional truths: the world is not even, the playing field is not level. We are all different. We come from different experiential backgrounds. Those backgrounds are seared into and onto our flesh, and it takes work to acknowledge, respect, and support these differences on the mat.
(I’m not sure we’re fully aware of how radically the TS discourse challenges the dominant ideology of modern yoga, expressed in endless refrains of universality and oneness. The language is shifting away from aspirations to — or presumptions of — unity, to a humble listening to the unknown other. Is this what the ṛṣis did? Didn’t they listen to something they could not understand, but listened carefully enough to memorize what they heard, intuiting how important it was?)
How would the fundamentals of TSY, related to single bodies seeking healing, not ripple out into the social fabric of practice? How would they not expand conversations around inclusivity, and even cultural appropriation? How would they not force discussions around accessibility and accommodation — so far only aspirational — into actionable territory?
Imagine it: the YTT as a non-denominational ritual that offers accessible space for social inquiry, rooted in the rhythms and techniques of self-awareness. Isn’t that where this boat has always been going?