In the beginning, I thought a lot about taking a yoga class. For two full years, I did nothing but imagine myself emerging from the yoga room, slight glow to my skin, yoga mat slung casually over my shoulder, flip-flopping my way to the coffee shop to hang with my yoga friends, where we would sip our chai and gossip about everyone else in class.
No, really, I did.
You see, when I finally got around to actually taking a yoga class twelve years ago it was not because I was seeking enlightenment. I can assure you it was not because I wanted inner peace. Quite simply, I wanted to look like the Cool Yoga Girl who had it going on. Not to mention the fitness magazines I read compulsively kept making these references to getting a “yoga butt” and my flat, shapeless Scandinavian backside thought that sounded like a good idea.
Lately, there has been a whole bunch of scuttlebutt going on in the yoga community and written in the yoga blogs debating “real” versus “sucky and inauthentic” yoga. This rather heated conversation asks whether a yoga class that does not specifically address yogic philosophy and lifestyle can still be considered a “real” yoga class, or simply some lesser, inferior and not nearly as awesome form of exercise. Perhaps it’s not even worthy of the name “yoga.” According to some of these bloggers, my very first yoga teacher would be considered a joke of a yoga teacher at best and potentially very, very dangerous at worst. She was primarily a dance and Pilates instructor who had taken a few weekend yoga trainings and therefore taught yoga. Basically, a yogic abomination.
When I think back to those first few months of yoga, after I finally got up the gumption to actually roll out a mat in an actual class, I was scared outta my wits and way, way out of my comfort zone. I was far more at ease in the weight room with a bunch of sweaty guys than in a confined space surrounded by uber-bendy peaceful-looking women in spandex. Would she make us chant? Would she be all “woo-woo?” Would I have to tie myself in knots? Would I look like a fool? (The answers were: No, not really, sort of and yes.) Savasana lasted all of three minutes and then we sat up and did some other swirly-arm stuff and said “namaste” and were sent on our way. The next day my butt ached something awful, in a way that pushing 300 pounds on the leg-press machine never made it feel. I was on to something good, I thought. God forbid if my teacher had prattled on about yoga philosophy or even started using Sanskrit names for the poses. I would have bolted out of there faster than you could say “Urdhva Dhanurasana.” (What’s that? You don’t know what that is? Yeah, well neither did my teacher.) I was there for the Yoga Butt and nothing else. A purely physical exercise.
This went on for a year or more–me taking as many classes as I could from my teacher each week and she teaching from her mat, never really looking at us much, doing her own practice along with us. She had no interest in ever giving a hand’s-on adjustment and I loved her and you know what? My yoga improved, my breathing improved and I never got hurt! Then, one summer my teacher left for Sweden for a month and was unable to find a sub for her classes. I remember the moment everyone in class looked back at me and said “Hey, you could lead us, couldn’t you?” At that moment, I became a yoga teacher.
At some point my yoga exercise became my yoga practice. I subscribed to Yoga Journal. I read yoga books. I went to teacher trainings and workshops. I remember the moment at the end of one class, right after my mom had died, when we were in our final reclining twist. As I took my right knee over my left leg and into the twist, I felt a surge of emotion bubble up from somewhere deep inside of me. I thought I was going to lose it, right then and there. This release of heady emotion both scared and fascinated me and it had certainly never happened during a dumbell curl in the weight room! It was at that moment that I began to recognize the power of this practice.
It was around this same time that my family and I started going to church. Obviously, I was searching for “something” and we felt the need to give our kids some sort of religious background before they started asking too many questions. We were drawn to a Lutheran church down the road. The pastor there was my age and very gifted at creating an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance and intelligent inquiry. In this traditional Lutheran church I learned that we are pretty much born a mess, we stumble our way through life and that, in the end, God is benevolent and forgiving. Whew. Good to know. While I was an active member at this church, I was involved with book clubs and fellowship groups where we were encouraged (and expected) to ask questions, to doubt our faith and not have all the answers. The Bible was shown as a powerful story, one from which we could draw metaphors, inspiration and comfort, but not interpreted literally. Had I gone to this church and been told that “this way” was the only way to be a Lutheran and if I failed, I was a sham, a “fake Lutheran” even, well…you can imagine how quickly I would have left.
I am no more comfortable in a yoga class (or community) that tells me that there is only one “real” way to practice (or teach) yoga than I would be in a church full of dogmatic fundamentalists. There is no difference, in my mind, between the two.
Since that initial yoga class a dozen or more years ago, yoga has, without a doubt, changed my life. It has changed the way I interact with people, the way I make decisions, the way I live my life. It has made me stronger physically and more intuitive emotionally. When I am on my mat, I am Home. This did NOT happen because I had a yoga teacher who told me it would, or told me how to do it. It happened because my first yoga teacher created a space in which I felt comfortable enough to enter. She didn’t hit me over the head with it, speaking in a foreign language that I didn’t understand or care to understand. She, with all her shortcomings, simply held space for me to try this yoga thing on. And for that, I am grateful.
After I had been teaching a couple of years, I went through a period of feeling “not worthy” to be a yoga teacher. After all, I wasn’t a vegetarian and had zero desire to be one. (I had been a vegetarian for nearly two years back in my twenties and craved chicken constantly. And gained fifteen pounds.) Sometimes, I wouldn’t even practice yoga on my days off and had been led to believe that that alone would likely put me in the category of a Yoga Fraud. Full of doubts, I stumbled across a book that changed my outlook–“The Heart Of Yoga” by T.K.V. Desikachar. Desikachar is definitely not a Yoga Fraud, and would be considered a “real” yogi by most. In this book he writes:
“Books or yoga classes often give the impression that there are prerequisites for the study of yoga. We may be told that we should not smoke, or that we should be vegetarian, or that we should give away all our worldly goods. Such ways of behaving are admirable only if they originate within us—and they may as a result of yoga—but not if they are imposed from outside.”
I vividly remember exhaling in relief after reading that passage. (Who’s your guru? YOU!)
When I teach a class, my intention is simple. To hold that space for others to do yoga, just as my teacher did for me. Yes, I speak to alignment and yes, I speak to the “monkey mind” that chatters away incessantly in all of us through those long Warrior Two holds. I make a point to use primarily Western names for all the poses, remembering what my mama taught me about it being rude to speak in a foreign language in front of others. By the third or fourth Warrior, I may throw out the Sanskrit word, knowing that there might be someone out there who is curious and loves the musicality of foreign languages as I do. But I understand that most don’t give a rat’s ass. I want to be clear and concise and let my class be an opportunity to connect with whatever my students need to connect with, be it a higher power or tighter abs. Who am I to tell someone what yoga should mean to them? Yoga is a fabulous physical exercise, yoga is a powerful spiritual tool, yoga is an amazing emotional cleanser. But it may not be all, or any of that for the people in my classes. And I’m totally okay with that.
You want to look like the Cool Yoga Girl who has it going on? Great! Come to my class. You want to look better in your $100 yoga pants? Great! Come to my class. You want to get more flexible and keep from injuring yourself running marathons? Great! Come to my class. You want to quiet your mind and connect to your spirit? Great! Come to my class. You want to learn that you are far stronger and braver than you ever thought possible? Great! Come to my class. And if for any moment any of us think that we are better or more “real” yogis because our intention for yoga is deeper or more fancy or more serious than the person next to us, we are, frankly, not practicing yoga at all.
So come to my class just as you are. That’s what I did all those years ago. We’ll take it from there. I won’t preach, I won’t prattle on too much. But mostly, I’ll remember the wise words my teacher-mentor once spoke to me: “Shut the *@#$ up and remember to wear clean clothes.”