I didn’t start practicing yoga in India, nor did I begin my studies under the tutelage of any great renunciate. I initiated my practice in much the same way most modern people do—I went to my neighborhood yoga studio and began practicing with a genuine teacher who had dedicated the last several years to intense study and practice of asana.
When I first began yoga, I worked at a University satellite studio on a military base, and each day I dealt with college students in the military. As a result, I worked within a manifold bureaucracy of both government and academic administration. Yoga was a breath of fresh air—and like any suffocating person would, I breathed yoga in because my life depended on it at the time. Yoga seemed the perfect antidote for endless miles of red tape and office politics. In time, I let go of that life and embraced a new one, naively believing that living a yogic lifestyle would ameliorate the suffering and discontentment.
Yoga has indeed done much of what it was intended to do. Teaching yoga has taught me compassion and practicing has given me vitality and taught me self-awareness. Yet, the shadows that followed me in my old life are still with me. In the past few years, I see that yoga teachers, just like everyone else, vie for position, and yoga students compete with one another for notoriety. So where lies the root of the problem? Shall we blame our institutions? Each other?
Too often, students come to me expressing disappointment with yoga teachers and yoga studios. One student said she felt to be more of a commodity than an individual. Another shy student came to me saying she’d heard a teacher bad mouthing students and other teachers loudly in a nearby café. She said it made her feel uncomfortable about practicing yoga, for fear that her vulnerabilities and shortcomings would soon be open for public debate. I am alarmed at the animosity that takes place within the yoga community, a place where compassion and responsibility should be guiding principles.
Being a teacher and a student means being both responsible for ourselves and responsible for others. I ask, what is the purpose of teaching yoga? Is it to push our agendas on to students? Or are we there to assist people in the process of cultivating consciousness? Are we able to let go of our own self importance in order to truly understand and empathize with our students? Can we feel what they feel, and respond accordingly? Or are we too caught up in our own ideas to see and understand what people really need?
Last month in satsang we reexamined the concepts of discipline and non-attachment, attempting to understand their pertinence to spiritual practice. We looked at what real discipline is, and what exactly it is that we are letting go of. Students, teachers and I have discovered that letting go of things like meat, alcohol, and sugar, while valuable to a certain degree always bring us closer to something less concrete. We start to approach letting go of ways of being—moving closer and closer to letting go of our ideas of who we are. We are attempting to empty ourselves of ourselves in an effort to sharpen our perceptions of the inner and out world, thus cultivating an awareness of purusha, or the Seer.
Yoga, health, and wellness are so popular that we’re all eager to try to the latest cleansing techniques and yoga fads, but few are willing to begin the process of dismantling the conditioned self. Few are willing because it’s hard and it requires more discipline than fasting, more vigilance than waking up at 3:30 AM, and more fortitude than a 3-hour asana practice. When engaging with the world, we discipline ourselves to remain resolute in the relinquishment our attachment to our own identities.
A jewel, when clear, takes on the form and image of whatever it against. This is an example of true empathy. However, when the jewel is tarnished, what is seen through it becomes tainted. This is much like how we see and interpret the world around us. Anais Nin’s famous words are, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Instead of being empathic to the world around us, we often project our own ideas, opinions, and tendencies. A thief assumes the world is stealing from him. When students come to me, it shines a light back on my own integrity, since I have seen in myself many ills—violence, dishonesty, greed, and more. If I cannot see these things in myself, I am more likely to project these tendencies onto others. In seeing the illness that infects us, we can let go of judgment and over time develop compassion and begin to look toward understanding what it means to be like a clear jewel of consciousness.
Join me this Sunday at Purple Yoga for our monthly satsang at 5:30 PM. This month’s theme will elaborate on the topics of letting go and how to cultivate the right kind of effort. Attendance is by donation.