Saturday, February 20, 2010

I was wrong


I'd like to get something off my chest. That is this: I was wrong about yoga. (Also about Adam Giambrone apparently, but that is for another post (in fact, I actually don't think I was wrong about Adam Giambrone, but as I said, that is a different story.)).

So, yoga. And how wrong I was. I set out to write just a few sentences on this topic, and now my post has expanded into a multi-day, many-paragraph think-fest.

I'm going to try to identify my main concerns about yoga, and describe how they have or haven't changed. You don't have to read this. I mean, I guess that goes without saying, but what follows is more for me than for you. OK, it has always been that way (more on that later). But anyway, yoga (I'm stalling!). Basically my arguments went like this:

CONCERN 1:  Why would you attend an exercise class with a religious element? What makes the yoga proselytizing so much more acceptable than say, that of a Catholic variety? Would you go to an aerobics class where you said 'Amen' at the end? (And what would that look like anyway?!)

NOW: I actually still stand by this point, and I have some troubles with the Namastes and the occasional weirdness from a teacher who has a deeper connection with the philosophical principles of yoga. But a lot of my feelings were based on an early experience at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre which were actually objectively really strange, something I detected even at the tender age of 14. And in that situation I think the use of the word 'proselytizing' is appropriate, while the typical yoga class probably shouldn't be described this way.

I believe that there are serious criticisms to be made about the wholesale adoption of the principles and techniques of these 'other' (aka Eastern) practices. But there is potentially quite a bit to be gained from a selective application. In fact, the majority of yoga that is practiced in the West is quite separate from the traditional discipline that originated in India. In particular, here in North America, the word yoga is basically synonymous with the various physical pretzeling of the body, while 'yoga' properly refers to both this physical practice together with some heavy mental business. It actually seems that the separation of these two practices is beneficial, in the sense that we inflexible North Americans are able to profit from the physical conditioning of the yogic practice, without having to sign up for the whole experience. Which leads nicely to....

CONCERN 2) Yoga isn't exercise.

NOW:  Well, it certainly isn't aerobic exercise (with the exception of some kind of nutty moves that I have seen people doing which make Vinyasas into burpies). People who think they will lose a lot of weight through yoga are probably wrong. But it does build strength, especially upper body strength in women, and it definitely furthers flexibility like nothing else. Even with all my ballet stretches and routines, I still find yoga to be far more beneficial for flexibility. AND.... this is more important that you might think. Being flexible means being comfortable. But instead of being comfortable because you are sitting in  a nice chair, or lying in bed, you are comfortable in your own bod. So what about:

CONCERN 3) Yoga is bad for the body.

NOW: This is still partly true, in the sense that an instructor with inadequate training and/or body-awareness may not be able to communicate some of the crucial points of safety to aspiring yogis. Given that the process of becoming a yoga instructor is essentially a pyramid scheme, there are a lot of under-educated yoga teachers out there, so this is more common than you might think. And, I believe that because of the mystique of yoga ("but it's an ancient tradition!"), participants are willing to put up with more pain than they might otherwise allow in the average exercise class.

This is a fact that still really bothers me, and I feel that there is such enormous variation among different teachers that it is almost unfair to call all those different classes 'yoga'. Sure, you can become a "certified" yoga instructor, but what does this mean? Who certifies you? Is it possible to try and fail to become certified? This is a problem, in my mind.

CONCERN 4) Yoga is self-indulgent.

AND NOW: And that is true. Every time my yoga instructor says "take time to thank yourself for this practice," I have a big inner wince (possibly an outer wince too). But you know what? Sometimes it is ok to take time to relax and pay attention to your body. Being flexible makes me happy, and I'm willing to do all sorts of other self-indulgent things like write this blog for example.  But claims that yoga will make you a better person are bizarre and incorrect. Maybe yoga will make you happier because you like doing it, and that in turn could make you a better person. Maybe.

CONCERN 5) The yoga lifestyle is bullshit.

AND NOW: This is still true, witness: Lululemon. You can't pay for enlightenment and you can't even pay for long, limber muscles, but you can get a snazzy apres-yoga wrap and sip your post-savasana chai latte on the way to buy more lulu gear. Don't get me wrong: I love every piece of athletic wear I have every purchased from this company, but oh I resent their clever marketing with a passion. I could go on, but I actually think this point is abundantly clear.

So that probably sums it up. Or does it? I love my once a week yoga class with Janick at YogaSpace, and I find a good twenty minutes of dining room Vinyasa to be a relaxing and energizing break from work, or just a nice way to start the day. I even find myself suggesting it to other people as a good thing to do.

In this sense, I was wrong about yoga. But maybe not "so wrong" about it. In any case, I apologize to anyone who has ever had to endure my scorn on this topic. I'm just a little late to the game I guess. I hope you will accept my apologies... Namaste in advance.

I'm interested though, on other people's opinions and experiences with yoga? Do you love it? Too slow and weird?

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