Friday, January 9, 2009

Yoga Snobs, Part 1: Snobs and Dabblers

I initially intended to have a single entry about Yoga Snobs, but once I started writing, I discovered I had a lot to say, more than could comfortably fit into a single blog entry. So I divided it into three parts. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted later.

I am a yoga dabbler. Every now and then, I show up at a class. There was a time when I was more committed. I had a specific teacher, studio, and yoga tradition (Kripalu). I went to classes a couple of times a week for two years. Even so, I never progressed beyond a certain level. I never developed a home practice. I never went vegetarian (for more than a couple of weeks at a time). And I never was comfortable doing the Plow, the shoulder stand or the Upward Dog, nor could I balance in the Crow for more than a couple of seconds. Having never attained the upper echelons of yoga, I have the perspective to see that there are upper echelons of yoga, and that there are yoga snobs. I have witnessed yoga snobbery on a couple of occasions. This is one of them.

It was the end of a class. We students were rolling up our mats. The instructor-- let's call her Debbie--approached one of the women (yoga classes are mostly women, as you'll know if you've ever been to one) and asked her if she was planning to go to the picnic. The woman was not aware about the picnic, so Debbie explained that "some of the yogis," as she put it, were planning a picnic, and that she should come along.

I perked up. "What's that? There's going to be a picnic?"

Debbie turned to me with visible reluctance and repeated that some of the yogis were planning a picnic. She did not invite me to come.

I pressed no further, not wanting to impose myself where I wasn't wanted. It was clear enough that the other woman had been selected and I hadn't. As to why, I can only speculate. It wasn't an issue of seniority; in fact, I'd been attending classes at that studio longer than Debbie had been teaching there. So perhaps this other woman was slimmer, younger, or could go more deeply into the Pigeon pose, even possessing the ability, which I didn't have then and still don't have now, to bend the back leg upwards and tuck the foot into the crook of the elbow.

None of that should matter. In yoga, where you are now is supposed to be perfect. The studio's founding instructor--let's call her Kathy--was always careful to remind us not to force or push ourselves too far, and that putting your face in your lap or your nose to your knee is "just a direction you're moving in."

And yet, when I asked her once if she could do a handstand, she said, "Of course!" and sounded insulted.

So apparently this kind of thing does matter.

It is of course possible that Debbie made her selections and exclusions for reasons other than physical. Perhaps she thought the other woman meditated better than I did or was closer to enlightenment. However, it is interesting to note that for a time, Kathy, the studio founder, was fierce in her defense of the idea that one can develop spiritually simply through the practice of the physical poses known as Hatha yoga. She'd gone so far as to promote this idea in the local newspaper, and start what she called "a controversy" (somebody wrote one calmly-worded letter in response). All this, because she believed that Debbie, the invitation-issuing instructor, had "come so far" simply through the practice of Hatha yoga.

It seems, then, that the physical was Debbie's primary focus, and Kathy felt the need to defend the position of the instructor she had chosen to work at her studio. In consequence, she needed to convince others, and perhaps herself, that postures alone could initiate spiritual development.

And yet, there's more to yoga than postures. One of the six branches of yoga is Seva or Selfless Service. I like this one, because it makes a lot more sense to me that you can evolve spiritually by getting out in the world and helping people than that you can do so by wrapping your body into a pretzel.

I'm not saying that there is anything wrong whatsoever with doing only Hatha yoga for the benefits it provides. After all, increased strength and flexibility, relaxation and getting more in touch with your body are all fine achievements in themselves. But anyone who tells herself that she is more spiritual because she does Hatha yoga is heading for trouble.

Come to think of it, anyone who tells herself that she is more spiritual than other people is heading for trouble.

Different people have different bodies that are capable of different things. There are many people who will never be able to get into the full Lotus position, no matter how devoted they are to their practice. Are they lesser than the person who always had wide-open hips, whose body has never been tightened by trauma?

In some circles, the answer is yes. And what a shame this is, as it hurts people like myself, the yoga dabblers of this world, the people who show up for an occasional class when they feel like it. We have as much right to yoga as the more committed, more flexible, more whatever. We have a right to practice in our own way. Indeed, the Yoga Snobs need us. If we go away, who will they feel superior to?

Have you ever encountered a Yoga Snob? I encourage you to share your experiences in the Comments section. Anyone can post a comment; you do not need to register. Thanks!


The Happy Painter said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. WEll ... I am just about to take my first yoga course and now I'm scared. Hahaha.

Vivian said...

No, don't be! I've had plenty of good experiences in yoga classes. I've just had bad ones too, that's all. You do have to be careful and pick a good teacher; otherwise you can end up injuring yourself.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to your thinking, and while I really love yoga, the whole "scene" kind of bothers me to some degree. I completely see what you're saying about the exclusivity of yoga, and it frustrates me that this exists. I've taken to yoga as a way to deal with some ongoing back problems, and it's helped tremendously. I think a lot of people could find pain management and better health if they actually felt that yoga was more accessible - something for any person, rather than a 25 year old woman with a perfect body and the "correct" outfit. I find that I have defiantly continued to wear sweat pants and a tee shirt to class just to not fall into that category.

I've also started to notice a really silly way of teaching, where teachers seem to have this idea that there is "the way" to teach and talk to students that seems devoid of any individual thought or lacks some depth of thought about the discipline - I notice ridiculous universal patter and even a vocal intonation that starts to sound canned. It gets too goofey, but everyone seems so serious and not to question it much. Not sure I'm making sense here.

Teachers talk about breathing but seem to have no knowledge to talk about why that is important. It seems there is a lot lacking in the teachers - or there are too many people who think they should be teaching but probably aren't really ready to do so.

The whole thing bothers me so much I've thought of learning to teach - my class would be called "yoga for the common person." Skip the phoney spirituality and the incense (which frankly makes me feel nauseous). Just come in a pair of sweatpants and we'll work on your lower back.

Vivian said...

Thanks for commenting. I like your idea for teaching your own class for the sweatpants-clad. If you decide to get yoga teacher training, I hope you'll choose a reputable school--you probably will because you sound as if you put some thought into these sorts of things. Some of the bad yoga teaching out there is due to variability in the quality of yoga teacher training, I think. With proper teacher training, there would be fewer instructors saying, "now let's do a shoulder stand," followed by flinging themselves into the pose with no mention of proper alignment or contraindication. If I was going to do yoga teacher training, I'd go to Kripalu Centre. They know what they're doing. Of course, they'll teach you how to teach Kripalu yoga. I don't know what your prefered style is or if you have one.

The canned teaching patter could be due to the fact that the instructor has to say the same sorts of things over and over again. I've wondered how they handle that.

Sometimes I get uncomfortable with the spirituality too. I had a subscription to Ascent magazine until it went under, and it (the spirituality) was all so noticeably borrowed from the east, mostly India plus a bit of China. I think we Westerners need to make yoga our own. By that I don't mean, "Yoga for rock-hard abs," or "Yoga for Buns of Steel." God, no. I mean we need to make it work with our own spiritual systems, whatever they may be. I think it's happening. It's a work in progress but we'll thrash something out, given time.

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