Many paths, one truth

In the yoga world there seems to be a lot of contention over the right method. I’ve heard stories of Dharma people thinking Ashtangis are a bunch of cross fit gymnasts. I’ve heard Bik Ram people called sadists. The whole thing seems a bit… ludicrous? Isn’t the idea of yoga to unify? Isn’t it very non-yogic to pick apart such petty things such as the order of which you practice physical postures, speed, temperature, frequency and time of day of which you do them?

In Ashtanga, there is a system through which the student progresses. This much, I know for fact. As you start walking into the system, more details arise. There are certain days where no new postures are given. One teacher may have been taught to grab inside, others outside. So many details, structure and rules that it may even deter some students from entering. This is how Ashtanga earns the myth of being too hierarchical and exclusive- “it’s not for everyone.”

Yoga is the one thing I can honestly say I’ve pursued intensely. Since 2009, I can see a steady increase in my time and energy going toward it: I started with one class a week for a few months, gradually increased it to 2-3. Last year, I began attending 4 a week. Over the course of this time, I’ve had a lot of interesting events. I’ve been asked to leave a studio twice (first time- for not getting with the new class pricing/schedule structure fast enough, and the second time for answering the question “what would you like on the schedule?” **note to students, this is a trap). I have been told that my intentions are wrong and I’m there for the wrong reasons. I can think of not many other things that are more intrusive and offensive than for someone who sees you a few hours a week and you may not have spoken with much outside of “Straighten the arm” or “Back heel down” to tell you why you’re there and why it’s wrong. This is the problem with yoga. (Side note: if I ever hear “it’s not about the physical practice” again I will have an investigator scourged your HD and cameras for all the pictures you have of yourself striking a pose atop a mountain, on a beach, or some other really cool place.)

Somewhere along the way, interpretations and teachings have wandered off the path. Just like with religion. It happens. There are time and language barriers, and your occasional fanatics that put their own spin on things. The problem I have is when someone force feeds you something or tells you it is the one best way. That is simply not true and yoga can either further exacerbate this or give you a way out of it. This was part of the reason that Rocket yoga was created. Ashtanga, being a regimented system with not much room for variation, will stop the student from moving through the practice if the teacher deems they cannot complete the pose, or if the student cannot be put into it (severity of decision dependent on liberality of teacher). Rocket was created as a method to honor and embellish the student’s strengths and allow them to avoid their weaknesses. It removed the postures that stopped the average student from moving through the practice and gave them the freedom to add/modify/creatively express the sequence. Is the student wrong for having drive and curosity to learn? I thought yoga was supposed to be metaphorical for the outside world, where an interest in expanding knowledge is a good thing?

A few months ago, I would have told you I hated Ashtanga and never wanted to practice it again. I took a month off and practiced Rocket only. After that month, I was ready to head back to Ashtanga. Because it finally sank in one day what a teacher had said a year earlier in her Rocket class… “I’ve got nothing for you here. If you want more, you’re gonna have to come to mysore.” Boom. I realized that if I want to learn more, I have to go to mysore to work through the series. I get it now! Rocket only goes up to 2 and even then it’s incomplete! What joy, I can’t wait to learn! Let me get back in the system and earn things now without cutting corners! Hooray!

I had long known of an elusive philosophy behind yoga and it has always been of huge interest to me. I graduated with a BA in Psychology and am inclined in the direction of understanding the mind. It just so happens yogic philosophy and psychology compliment each other nicely. There is actually a SHIT load of psychology behind Ashtanga in specific! This past year I took my first formal training in yoga. It was a 200 hour program designed to give me the credentials to teach a modified progressive Ashtanga class. I’ve never really been interested in teaching (and til today, have mixed feelings over it). I was there to learn the things I was only getting bits and pieces of in class at the end in savasana (where my favorite teacher inserts her latest tidbits of wisdom from Osho and the like) . And to my surprise, we spent a lot of our time just physically practicing.

I am under fire again today from a different teacher. They are not my teacher, though they have taught me some things. I would in no way call them responsible for the way my practice looks. In fact, of the two teachers who led our training, this one was less memorable to me in terms of physical asana. Why? Probably because I couldn’t identify with her practice. Our body structures were quite different, we struggled with opposite parts of our bodies. I did however look up to her for philosophy. She had a background in Psychology as I did, had similar beginnings in yoga, had similar issues with trust and commitment. The other teacher, though a man, resembled my body and areas of strength more. I have always been strong in the upper body, squarish shoulders like a football player. My legs are more toned than some of my guy friends and I can squat more than some of the guys in the gym. I could watch him and learn easily. On top of that, he was also very erudite in psychology and yogic philosophy.

He is a black sheep of the yoga world. And as I navigate through this culture, I have stepped off the path and landed on some toes again. I’m a black sheep now, but on top of that I’m disrespectful of the practice, uneducated, and again, not there for the right reasons.

At a certain point in your life (probably about the time you get out of college and wake up to realize that how cool your friends think you are isn’t going to pay your bills.. wait, bills…??) you stop caring what people think and existing solely to impress them. It doesn’t matter if it’s yoga or basket weaving, painting… no one should ever have to prove or explain themselves and their worthiness of being there. Your reasons, your talents and the effort you expend on obtaining your successes belong to you. If success in your hobbies come natural to you- that’s a double high five. Congratulations on finding what you’re good at (because there are certainly people out there who take much longer discovering what their strengths are).

Yoga and religion are not synonymous and should not be confused. There are scientific and practical reasons why this is the case. If every morning or Sunday you went to your place of worship and recited the same prayer but as a result you would go hoarse and lose your voice, would you still do it? Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice. In spiritual form can be attained by rock climbing, running, washing the dishes.. it’s being mindful, kind to yourself and others. It’s practicing non-judgement (starting to sound familiar…?) In it’s physical form, it can be a beautiful practice. Physically practicing will not bring me enlightenment. But doing the same physical motions every morning for 1.5 hours can sometimes bring on RMD (repetitive muscle disorder). Maybe if you’re a bionic freak of nature this will evade you. But for the rest of us, having shoulders that don’t pop, knees that don’t click and backs that don’t spasm is preferable.

Of course, this is only my opinion. I’m no bigger, better or worse for formulating one, just as this teacher has done with her idea of yoga. There are many paths that lead to one truth. Yet another reason I love yoga is because it has the potential to be so metaphorical. The lessons we learn from the mat can be applied in nearly every aspect of life. Example: in such a diverse world, who’s right to say one religion is the correct one over another simply because they are practiced differently? Devotion takes many forms. Your truth is yours alone, and it’s not your job to make anyone else know it.