Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How can one be spiritual without hitting somebody over the head with spirituality? (I don't know the answer)

“Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”

Mahatma Gandhi

A couple of days ago, I had a very interesting and revealing conversation with my fiancee; let's call her K. In order for the conversation to make sense to you, I need to start by telling a rather long, meandering story. Please bear with me; I can't seem to resist any excuse to tell stories :-)

Here's the story. In the summer of 2007, I spent three weeks on Maui attending a three-week asana intensive at Eddie Modestini's and Nicki Doane's studio. Eddie and Nicki are both authorized to teach Ashtanga by KPJAYI. In addition, Eddie was one of the first individuals in this country to be certified to teach Iyengar yoga; I hear that back in the day, the Iyengar certification process was very rigorous (it probably still is), and only a few people got certified to teach the Iyengar method. Eddie and Nicki combine their expertise in both these systems to create Maya Yoga, which is a very intelligent blend of the Iyengar and Ashtanga methods. If you ever have a chance to study with them, you should (especially on Maui; there's some really powerful energy on that island that brings out the stuff in you; but I should leave this for another post); their teaching is totally mind-blowing and life-changing in a very authentic and no-nonsense way.

But I digress. Back to my story. Actually, I'm going to need to digress a bit more; but trust me, everything comes together. You'll see. By the spring of 2007, I had been practicing yoga on my own for a couple of years, stringing together my own asana sequences from Light on Yoga (I had yet to become an Ashtangi at that time). But I was getting to a point where I felt that if I was going to get anywhere in my practice, I had to go study with a real teacher. So I did a bit of research, and took classes at a couple of workshops and conferences. I took Eddie's and Nicki's workshop at a yoga conference in Miami, and was really impressed by their systematic, no-nonsense approach to the practice. I decided that I needed to study with them for a more substantial period of time. After a little more research and reflection, I decided to go study with them on Maui. At that time, I was a poor grad student (I am still not rich, but that's another story). What's worse, the department did not assign me any classes to teach that summer, which meant I had to go an entire three months with zero income. But something in me told me that this was a opportunity to go for broke and really change something in my life (if not now, then when?), and show those eggheads (i.e. my fellow grad students and some professors, who regarded my new-found passion for yoga with a mixture of bemusement and suspicion, and believed that I was irreversibly morphing into some kind of new-agey/hippie type) that my life was so much bigger and much more powerful than working on miserable dissertations and publishing books and articles that maybe a hundred people around the world will read (if one is lucky). Oh no, this post is in danger of spiraling into an angry rant against academia. I better stop here...

Okay.. Ahem! Back to the story (what story?!). Well, as I was saying, I was faced with the prospect of having no income for the entire summer, and yet I wanted to go to Maui very badly. I think you can see how crazy this would sound to any clearheaded, rational-minded person ("What?! You have no money, and yet you want to go to Hawaii for three weeks for a yoga vacation? Get real, dude!"). So I humbled myself, and asked my dad for money for the airfare. At the same time, I managed to get into a work-trade agreement with Eddie and Nicki; basically, I would take the asana intensive for a reduced rate in exchange for doing work around the studio and on their property. I also managed to secure another work-trade agreement from a nearby farm, which allowed me to stay there for $10 a day for the entire three weeks (no small matter for Maui, where hotels can easily run two or three hundred dollars a night) in exchange for performing small chores around the farm. And I managed to put together a little money to spend on food and miscellaneous stuff (like going to Nancy Gilgoff's studio for Mysore classes on my off days :-)) So, if you are thinking of going to Maui, but don't know if you have the money, remember my story :-)

I learnt lots of things from Eddie and Nicki during those three weeks (this will again take another post or two, so I won't go into this here). At the same time, I also met some interesting people on the farm. Again, I realize that I can probably spend an entire post describing all the people that I met on that farm, but that would have to be, well, another post. For the purposes of this post, I'll just describe two people I met. These are two middle-aged women who live together on a nearby property. They sometimes come over to the farm to hang out. Over the course of a few days, I learnt that one of the women was a Yoga-Alliance certified teacher; she was certified by this organization called Phoenix Rising Yoga, which is a therapeutic form of yoga which I know nothing about. Together, the two of them were working on turning their property into a retreat space. They were planning on organizing and selling retreat packages to vacationers; for a fixed fee, the participant in such a retreat would be treated to beautiful accommodations in an idyllic natural setting, with gourmet meals, and twice-daily yoga classes, among other things. Which sounds wonderful. Except that during the course of one of my conversations with them, one of them (I can't remember if it was the yoga teacher, or the other woman) suddenly paused, and asked me if I minded her smoking. I should have been more honest, and said I did (I can't stand cigarette smoke). But being the nice Asian dude that I am, I smiled in what must have been a very mild-mannered and unassuming manner, and said, "Go ahead." Argghh... don't I hate myself at times like this... Anyway, the two of them took out their cigarettes, and basically started puffing away like chimneys right there and then. I know I'm being really judgmental, but do you see the disconnect here? We basically have two people who profess to be into holistic lifestyles, and are in the business of selling such a lifestyle to others, puffing away like walking chimneys! Well, I don't know; maybe in some alternative Hawaiian universe, smoking is good for you. What do I know?

But let's get back to what started this whole post: The conversation I had with K a couple of days ago. I basically told her the above story of these two, uh, holistic women, accompanied with my judgmental tone of voice and disapproving looks. I was relating this story, and basking in my moral victory and feeling of being spiritually superior, when she stopped me short, "But don't you think that other people could say the same thing about you? You don't smoke or eat meat, but you do drink beer and eat tons of potato chips! What do you think somebody would think if you told them all about the wonders of Ashtanga, and then they catch you drinking?" That stopped me short. Somewhere in the depths of my being, I could hear a loud crashing sound; the sound of the imposing edifice of my supposed spiritual superiority crumbling to the ground, demolished beyond any hope of reconstruction...

Of course, if I had been a little quicker on my feet, I could have responded with something like, "Yeah, but at least I'm not trying to sell anybody any kind of holistic lifestyle, and trying to look all holistic and shit! I just do my own little practice in my own little body, and try to share my practice with whoever wants to do it." But alas, being quick on my feet has never been one of my strong suits. So I basically spent the next hour in this really bummed out and deflated/busted state of mind; I eventually succeeded in pulling myself out of this state by putting a Woody Allen movie into the DVD player, and sitting in front of the TV for a couple of hours with a beer and a bag of chips! Well, so there you have it: You can basically describe me as a Chinese guy who does Ashtanga, drinks beer, eats potato chips, and watches Woody Allen movies (I actually have a friend who thinks I am the Woody Allen of Singapore, which I think is a very high compliment ;-)).

But what disturbs me is that for at least a moment, I had fallen into the trap of using my perceived spiritual superiority as a club to hit somebody over the head with. I could be wrong about this, but I suspect that many spiritual or holistically-minded people out there also fall into the same trap; consciously or unconsciously, they have a tendency to use their own perceived spiritual superiority as a club (or even baseball bat) to hit others over the head with.

Is there a way to overcome this tendency? Do you have any tips or experiences or interesting stories to share?


  1. I'm guilty of this more often than I'd like, and I suspect I'm not the only one. I guess the only solution is awareness and catching yourself when you're judging other people. In Christianity they have a saying that 'let he who has not sinned cast the first stone', which is a nice way of saying, 'Think before you speak' :) Don't be too hard on yourself!

  2. Aren't you glad you have your fiancee to remind you of this human fallacy possessed by every human being? :D We all could use someone like her :D

  3. Thanks savasanaaddict. I think the yoga version of that saying would be "let he who is without samskara cast the first stone." :-) Yes, I think awareness is what's needed; hopefully, the awareness we cultivate in the practice will also, over time, translate into awareness off the mat.

    Yes, Yyogini, I am glad and blessed indeed :-) Thank you.