The first time I really “got” meditation, I was standing at my kitchen sink washing dishes.
My father was dying. Cancer.
Hospice bed in the living room-style cancer.
I’d flown back to Nebraska to see him one last time, to hold his hand, say goodbye.
Now, the haunting question of when.
I was 26, living in a 100-year-old flat in San Francisco, bartending my way through grad school, subsisting on coffee and cocktails. Standing there at the sink, I could hear the young couple upstairs vacuuming, the Chinese family across the alley clattering pans, and the cable car clanging one block over on California Street.
My mind was obsessively circling the drain.
My son was born on my birthday.
February 22: George Washington’s birthday. Drew Barrymore’s birthday. And mine.
My phone pinged with Facebook notifications as I stood over the hospital trash bin and retched. Three times I emptied my stomach of the apples and peanut butter my husband had lovingly sliced a few hours before. Once into the trash can. Again. And then again into the birthing tub laced with lavender essential oils.
Fiercely feminist, I’d always been ambivalent about having children. I’d watched my peers spawn with nary a twinge of jealousy, content with my books and my yoga. I told myself, “If it happens: great. If it doesn’t: great.”
On our first date, I teased my future husband, Robb, that I’d likely go the way of Sylvia Plath, making the kids sandwiches and sticking my head in the oven.
Six months later, drinking champagne on a pier overlooking Tomales Bay, we were engaged.
A year later, I was pregnant. Robb promised parenthood would make me a better yoga teacher. I rolled my eyes and took a swig of my chai, wishing it were vodka. He was right. Motherhood has made me a much better yoga teacher.
But I was unprepared for the shattering.
Take a look at any mainstream yoga rag, and you might think “yoga” means skinny white ladies lounging around in stretchy pants, talking about probiotics. But yoga is so much more.
Yoga’s smart. Yoga’s radical. Yoga’s counter-cultural.
The modern yoga scene is at a tipping point. Commodification and “Instagramification” have transformed this profound meditative practice into a trendy, upper-middle-class fitness craze.
It’s time for populist, philosophy-loving yogis to reclaim yoga from its widespread assimilation as a sanitized, fashion-driven workout. Believe it or not, the philosophical tradition’s got much wisdom to offer regarding the messy, sweaty, sacred/profane reality of being alive. Which brings us to…Fight Club. Yep, you heard me right.
This is a selfie.
I talk a lot of shit about selfies. Have for a long time. You know, that they’re narcissistic and precious and self-conscious and misguided and pretty much the downfall of the yoga world these days. All about “The Gaze,” all about “being seen” rather than just “being.” The practice lost to the performance. No small thing.
But, shit. That’s a goddamned selfie.
And you know what?
I fucking love it.
Do you know how people take yoga selfies? There’s not a single graceful thing about it.
That effortless Handstand-on-the-beach? She took 62 shots of that and they were all sandy and shitty. That relaxed Pigeon in the park? He ran back and forth to the camera 17 times before he could actually get into the pose in time. That Natarajasana on the mountain top? She about lost her shit and fell into the Grand Canyon.
In the yoga world, we use the Sanskrit phrase “Sthira Sukham Asanam” to describe the complementary balance of effort and ease, strength and softness necessary in every pose. Sutra 2.46 lays out the way in which each asana (literally, “seat”) should be a kind of relationship, an ongoing conversation between steady, active presence and yielding, relaxed stillness. The combination of the two qualities creates a yin-yang kind of wholeness that is strongly rooted, firm in foundation, confident and stable — and at the same time malleable, easy to adapt, gentle in spirit and undeniable in the face of transition. …
When I met my husband (unsuspecting, in a yoga class), I fell in love with his finely-tuned practice of Sthira Sukham Asanam. A longtime yogi, he was capable of being at once resolute and confident, tender and gentle. He could throw back a beer in one breath and quote Hafiz in the next. …
The most challenging practice has been finding center, grasping at sattva in the moments of sleeplessness, of relentless, bone-breaking parenting. Fumbling to stay calm at the changing table when the little man wriggles off. Struggling not to yell when he refuses to get into his high chair for the fiftieth time. Trying to be tender with one another when we’re both rundown and under-slept and haven’t showered in four days.
The idea is, of course, not to nail every posture (or every diaper change), but to let go and roll with the punches, to allow the sensations — the fear, the anger, the exhaustion — to move through you and to just get out of the way, exhaling into the quiet that’s always there under the chaos, paying attention to how everything is perpetually changing from day to day, moment to moment, breath to breath.
And then it passes.
PICTURE A BUDDHIST. What comes to mind? A red-robed monk or nun sitting patiently on a cushion, lips gently smiling, eyes closed, legs crossed in Lotus Pose?
Or perhaps you picture Tina Turner, or Richard Gere, or another famous pop culture Buddhist?
For most of us, it’s definitely not an athletic, barefoot, nude-leotard-clad dancer bounding elegantly across the floor on a brightly-lit stage.
San Francisco-based choreographer and dance filmmaker Claudia Anata Hubiak’s contemporary dance company, The Anata Project, suggests an unconventional new Buddhist prototype. Since 2011, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist concept of anata (“egolessness,” or the notion that there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self), The Anata Project has produced dances and dance films that take a genuine and unflinching look into the unguarded mind and heart. Its interdisciplinary conceptual foundation stands at the cutting edge of the meditative melding of body and spirit, seeking to break new ground in the worlds of modern dance, mindful embodiment, and Buddhist art.
Teachers, does this sound familiar?
You’re drained, running on empty, burning the candle at both ends. You’ve taught 12 classes already this week, and with four to go, you wonder what you have left to give anyone.
You haven’t gotten much sleep. You’ve not eaten all day and you’re super low-blood-sugar. Or maybe you’re just feeling kind of quiet and blue; your dog just went in for surgery to remove a lump, or your grandmother is ailing, or you just found out you didn’t get that job (or that date) you really, really wanted.
Whatever the case — your gas tank is empty, and you’re feeling decidedly short on the kind of chutzpah required to power through being an inspiring yoga-guru for the next 90 minutes. How are you supposed to emcee a dance party when you’d rather curl up under the covers and hibernate?
I’ve been mentoring a few [awesome] teachers lately as they study for their 500hr certifications, and this is one of the topics that has repeatedly come up. Most of us wellness professionals can relate to this, yeah? If you teach long enough, you’ll surely experience burnout at some point. It’s the nature of the biz. (And the nature of being human, to be honest.)
For newer teachers especially, who are often hustling from location to location teaching 10-15 classes a week, it’s not an option to cut back to a more reasonable number. Add in urbanity, commuting, and a high cost of living, and you need to keep teaching a robust regular schedule to afford to pay your rent and eat a decent meal now and then, too. The luxury of cutting back to just a few inspired classes a week is one that’s often only available to established teachers with large followings, or folks with another full-time job that takes the financial pressure off yoga teaching.
Wellness professionals — whether yoga teachers, Pilates teachers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, you name it — well, we give a lot. The very nature of our craft is that you put yourself out there, physically AND emotionally. You can’t just hide in a cubicle with your headphones on and fritter the workday away online waiting for the clock to hit 5pm so you can escape to your sofa. You need to show up, in every way — whether you’re feeling en fuego or exhausted.
The upside for those of us who really love teaching is that so much comes back to us, too. How lucky are we to do the kind of work that makes us feel MORE alive when we finish? Many times over the years I’ve walked into a class feeling kind of neutral (shall we say sattvic, or quietly balanced, to keep it Ayurvedic?), and walked out feeling buzzingly-alive, connected, inspired. How cool is it that we get to do that kind of work? It really is a blessing.
Here are a few things to remember on the days when you might struggle for inspiration:
In yogic philosophy, the word Santosha basically translates as “contentment.”
This isn’t contentment as in, Hey, let’s get stoned and sit on the couch eating donuts and bingeing on Netflix for the next five hours.
It’s not contentment as in Eh, my life is pretty decent as it is, so why bother learning a new language or playing piano or planting a garden or traveling to Greece?
This is contentment, as in looking around at your perfectly-imperfect life, waking up to the little graces, and being ok with it, instead of constantly seeing happiness over there, once you get that body or that car or that job or that partner or that kid.
Buddhist scholar David Loy calls this grass-is-always-greener phenomenon LACK. It’s the ubiquitous, unsettling sense that there’s something intrinsically missing, a perpetual void, always the experience of not enough.
You see this everywhere. Capitalism stokes the fire. Our economy is fueled by the message that YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH. That if you just buy this moisturizer or that Tesla or that pair of sneakers, you’ll be lovable, you’ll be popular, you’ll be complete.
We all know that’s not true.
Because as soon as you get the Tesla, you’ll want the newer model. And as soon as you get the McMansion, you’ll want the one with the pool next door. And as soon as you get the trophy wife, there’ll be a younger one with fewer wrinkles and better boobs around the corner.
Baking has always been a kind of yoga for me. Being in the kitchen takes me out of my chattering mind and into the task at hand. So after my son was born, I scoured the Internet in search of the perfect healthy oatmeal cookie recipe. Breastfeeding meant I was constantly starving (nursing burns between 800 and 1,200 extra calories a day—crazy, right?), and I wanted to find a vegan, gluten-free, (mostly) sugar-free, and superfood-heavy snack that would satisfy my new-mama hunger and give my body tons of nutrition.
My son is now a toddler, and we’ve taste-tested a lot of oatmeal cookies since he was born, though none was quite right. I’ve spent the last two years tinkering to come up with a recipe that meets my criteria. I think it’s pretty perfect now.
The great news? You can eat this cookie for breakfast. Seriously. It’s protein-rich, whole-foods-based, and packed with powerhouse nutrients.
The word “Namaste” is pretty played out these days, isn’t it?
You can find it everywhere: on yoga mats, on bumper stickers, on water bottles. You can buy a “Namaste In Bed” t-shirt on Amazon. You can pick up Namaste bracelets and handbags and trucker hats on Etsy. You can dig into Namaste-brand gluten-free pizza crust and chicken noodle soup. You can walk into Namaste-branded pilates studios and wellness centers.(Not to mention the hilarious yoga-world-skewering web series Namaste, Bitches.)
The word itself has taken on a certain cultural significance. It’s become a brand, recognizable even to someone who’s never stepped foot on a yoga mat.
Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this phenomenon spiritual materialism. Spiritual materialism occurs when a spiritual concept or practice is turned into a product for the purpose of making money. It’s rooted in the idea that you can buy and sell spiritual qualities like peace, grace, or transcendence.
There’s no going back now.
I’m having a hard time writing about yoga lately.
There’s such a cruel juxtaposition of things going on in the world.
It’s summer yoga festival season. My FB feed is packed with photos of half-naked tan bendy people decorated with henna tattoos and patterned leggings doing yoga poses on mountains everywhere I look. And they are having so much FUN and sweating and chanting and living and doing their thang, you know? And I’ve been there and done that myself, and oh man yes, is it so fun. Right on, people! Namaste! Jai Ma!
But those yogis-gone-wild posts are bookended with videos of awful shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and Dallas and heartbreaking massacres on the French Riviera and hand-wringing from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where fiery speakers are calling for gun rights and white supremacists are offering prayers.
How are we supposed to even reconcile the two?
It feels crass, doesn’t it? To share happy-pretty-shiny yoga pictures on Instagram when the world feels like it is, quite literally, devolving into chaos?
I’ve only got one word…