Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Five Stages of Yoga Geekdom

[Image taken from here]

I just read Yyogini's latest post. In it, she talks about how she responds to well-meaning queries by her friends about her yoga practice in social situations. She writes:

'...I believe that people want me to casually talk about my yoga progress, with a sense of humor, and maybe some gossip, as if I were reporting about my progress in, say, salsa dancing or figure skating: "Oh it's going great! I fell on my butt soooooo many times but I just mastered pirouetting on one foot last week!" "I'm so much more flexible now that before I started yoga. I used to not be able to touch my toes, and now I can almost do a split!" "OMG, there's this one yoga teacher who is super hot! Men who practice yoga have such nice bodies! I go to his class all the time, and he's the only teacher who can get me into a handstand! You should come try his class with me sometime! He has the most sexy voice ever and you'll feel so relaxed in this class!" "My butt is so much perkier now after all the yoga I've been doing. It's super awesome. The yoga inversions help reverse the aging effects that gravity has on a woman's skin and boobs! I feel younger than ever before!"'

I totally relate to everything that Yyogini writes about here. Although I am a yoga geek, I am nevertheless not totally oblivious to the social expectations of non-yoga-geeks in polite conversation. Like Yyogini, I am aware that most of my friends are not interested in hearing about things like "how I'm trying to burn through my samskaras with metaphoric/energetic fire generated by breath and postures", or about how I am still able to practice with an injury, and the kinds of modifications and adjustments to my life and practice that I have had to make. In other words, most people in social situations are not interested in the nitty-gritty, not-so-pretty details of how you do your yoga practice. Rather, they consciously or unconsciously expect you to regale them with entertaining stories/anecdotes of your yoga exploits (preferably with at least a little bit of sexually-charged content thrown in, as Yyogini relates above). Nobody (well, at least nobody who is not also a yoga geek) wants to hear about how you are lengthening your adductors or hamstrings in hip openers and forward bends, or how you are bringing more awareness to your thoracic spine in backbends (yawn...).

I suspect that many people who read this blog will be able to relate to things like this: Who, after all, would take precious time out of their precious day to read this thing called "Yoga in the Dragon's Den", and sit through not-so-pretty accounts of practice reports, injuries, and other random musings about minute aspects of yoga practice, if they did not have at least a streak of yoga geekiness? (To my, ahem, loyal readers: Many thanks for reading my random writings. Please continue to do so. :-))

But Yyogini's post has also prompted me to ponder another question: How does a yoga geek become a yoga geek? Or, what are the stages one goes through in the transformation from average man/woman in the street to full-fledged yoga geek? Through my own observation, I have come to the tentative conclusion that the transformation involves five stages:

(1) The yoga zealot/evangelist stage: This characterizes the first phase of many a yoga geek's career. Yyogini describes this stage very vividly:

"When I first started yoga, I couldn't stop talking about it, whether people wanted to hear about yoga or not. Like a zealous religious fanatic, I would shove complementary yoga passes into people's hands and try to get them to come to a yoga class with me."

At this stage, the yogi/yogini simply cannot understand why the whole world isn't doing yoga: After all, if yoga is such a great thing, and does all these wonderful things to one's mind, body and spirit and makes the world a much better place for everybody, and somebody out there is actually NOT doing yoga, wouldn't that person have to be either ignorant about yoga or seriously not thinking straight? The yogi/yogini thus concludes that it is his/her Shiva-given mission to go out there, get the yoga word out, and save all these suffering souls from the darkness of their ignorance/unstraight-thinking by bringing them the gift of yoga. Amen/Namaste.

More often than not, the zealot/evangelist stage is precipitated by some kind of personal event or issue that brings the yoga zealot/evangelist into the presence of yoga, and which convinces him or her that yoga is the panacea that will cure most (probably all) of humanity's ills. Such a personal event or issue is often something relatively mundane and specific, such as wanting to become more fit, build more muscle tone, lose weight, back issues, or seeking to find hot chicks or hot guys (For my personal story, see this post). The general idea here is this: Somebody seeks a solution to a relatively mundane and specific issue, and finds the solution through yoga. Having found in yoga the cure for his or her personal issue, he or she then learns a bit more about yoga, and concludes that "if yoga can cure me, it can cure you (and everybody else) too." Thus, an evangelist is born.

(2) The somewhat-mellowed zealot/yoga-evangelist stage: At this stage, the yogi or yogini, while still zealous and very enthusiastic about yoga, has also begun to realize that many people are just not that into yoga. Or, at any rate, he or she is probably not going to be the one to get them to see the light of yoga and bring them into yoga's presence. Yyogini describes this stage in this way:

"Over time, I learned that most people have strong mental resistance against trying something new. Some people didn't enjoy physical education in high school and concluded that all physical activities suck, period. Others seemed to think that I would be so inconsiderate that I would take them to an advanced yoga class when they are not that active in their day-to-day lives (or maybe they think all yoga movements are too advanced for them). So I stopped mentioning yoga in social situations."

At this stage, the yogi/yogini still talks about yoga and tries to get people to go to yoga classes, but only does this with close friends and/or people whom he or she knows to be at least somewhat receptive to trying something new.

Interestingly, such a mellowing of the evangelical drive is often accompanied by a deepening of the yogi/yogini's own reasons and motivations for practicing. At this stage, the yogi or yogini may find himself or herself forgoing certain things that would have appealed to him or her previously, much to his or her surprise.

Here's a personal example. A few months after I started doing yoga in grad school, I decided to try asking this woman (let's call her Miss X) out on a date. I was single at that time, and had been thinking of asking Miss X out for a while. On the morning of the day I planned to ask her, I was chatting with a fellow grad student on campus. In those days, I was somebody who pretty much wore his heart on his sleeve, and had no compunctions about sharing his romantic exploits (or lack thereof) fairly freely with people around him.

Anyway, on this morning, as I was chatting with this grad student, I wondered aloud whether I should ask Miss X out on a hot date on Wednesday evening, or whether I should go to my usual Power Yoga class instead. Hearing this, she replied, "Wow, if you are actually trying to choose between power yoga and going on a so-called hot date with this woman, this woman must not be so hot!" Her reply stopped me in my tracks: I realized she was right. But I asked Miss X out on a date anyway. The date, it turned out, wasn't exactly sizzling hot: There just wasn't that much chemistry between us, and there was never a second date. Hmm... should have gone to power yoga instead.

I meant to use this example to show how, at this stage, things that would have usually appealed to the yogi/yogini (in my case, going on a hot date) are now being foregone in favor of yoga practice, which indicates that the yogi/yogini's practice is starting to deepen. But maybe this is not such a good example after all; it could just be that I simply didn't find Miss X to be as hot as I thought I did. But could it also be that the yoga practice had subtly transformed me by this point, so that what I perceived to be so hot in the past wasn't so hot anymore? Anyway, there's no way I'm going to be able to answer all these questions here. But the general point I'm trying to make (i.e. that the yogi/yogini's practice tends to deepen at this stage of yoga geekdom) still stands. Well... maybe we should just move on to the next stage:

(3) Baptism-by-fire stage: My apologies if this sounds really dramatic, but I can't quite think of a better way to describe this. At this point, the yogi/yogini has been regularly practicing yoga for a while (this could be anything from six months to a few years), and is being regarded by her friends as a "longtime yogi/yogini"; so much so, that most of her friends can no longer think or speak of her without the word "yoga" popping up in their heads or mouths.

At this point, some kind of obstacle or challenge will arise to test the "faith" of our yogi/yogini. This could be something purely physical, such as an injury or a plateau in the asana practice. Or it could be some kind of psychological or emotional issue brought up by a combination of the practice and certain lifestyle changes. At any rate, the yogi or yogini may either (1) struggle with these obstacles, and find a way to modify the practice in order to continue the practice in the face of these obstacles, or (2) stop practicing for a while, and come back to the practice after addressing the obstacles, or (3) stop practicing altogether, and do something else (Pilates? Taichi? Gymnastics? Note to reader: I have nothing against Pilates or Taichi or gymnastics. I think they are all cool.) Whatever the case may be, after going through this baptism of fire by obstacles, the yogi or yogini's life and practice will no longer be the same as it was.

(4) Yoga Geek: If the yogi or yogini sticks to her practice (i.e. if she chooses (1) or (2) above instead of (3)), she will attain a certain level of confidence in her practice, and will be more sure than ever in the ability of the practice to burn through obstacles in her life. This confidence will inspire her to seek to learn more from teachers whom she perceives to be further along the path than she is. She may even structure a lot of her major life decisions around yoga (for instance, an Ashtangi may give up a well-paying job in order to have the freedom to travel often to Mysore). In the eyes of others (and probably, herself as well), she will have become a yoga geek.

(5) Samadhi/Self-realization (?): Having never experienced samadhi, I can't say much about this stage. But if the yoga sutras and other classic yogic texts are to be believed, at some point, the yoga geek will attain this stage (Guruji: Do your practice, and all is coming.).

In laying out these five stages, I'm not saying that they apply to every single yogi or yogini. I suppose it is possible that at least some yogis or yoginis were never evangelical about their practice. It is also very possible that many yogis or yoginis may go through some of these stages (especially Stage 3: Baptism by Fire) more than once in their practice careers. But I think these five stages pretty accurately describe the yogic journey of many a yoga practitioner/geek. Do they describe yours?        


  1. Wow, this is a very impressive analysis of my post.. I feel very flattered Nobel. I wonder if others yogis go through the same stages as you describe. I think I might hit stage 3 soon (although I'm sure my friends probably all think I'm in stage 4). We'll see what happens.

  2. In the words of the Great Sage and learned Master, Jeff Spiccoli, "Awesome!, Totally Awesome!". I would agree Nobel, at least for myself anyway:)Been there, felt that, am there, feel that. I do find however, that my unabashed "geeky-ness" has mellowed only insofar as I do let loose when approached and asked about yoga practice, otherwise, I find that I am quite reverent and silent about it most of the time, uh maybe that's because I'm either practicing,reading blogs about practicing, watching Kino on Youtube or reading a book regarding practice oh yeah or eating:) I am on a "new" adventure Nobel, today starts my "stupid o'clock" practice time...up at 4:30, bathe, chai and read blogs, practice @6am. I am usually an 8:30, 9 am yogini, but school is back in session and I'm the taxi! This feels really good though, hum.....keep ya posted. Have u seen the old man from the coffee shop lately?

  3. Hi Nobel

    You're fun to read!:)

    My stage number one ended with the yoga teacher certification. Evidently I didn't want to trust to save the world to anyone but myself:))
    In those days(we are talking about Eastern Europe the end of 1990s) we had one or two semi-underground yoga studios in the city(of course there were absolutely no Ashtanga!) Whoever was to put the foot in the door of a yoga studio had to be dead serious about it. The goal was outlined to us straight and in simple word - SPIRITUAL so no mucking around:))
    To this day I know tens of people who I had practiced with 10-12 years ago they are all still going strong.
    I could go to more stages if you fancy just don't want to overload you with my long wordy comments.

     I guess I'm just coming from a different mentality. I remember when the USSR fell apart all of a sudden we stared getting lots of things that were forbidden or suppressed by government. Yoga was one of those things;)

  4. It seems like Stages 3 and 4 cycle into each other quite a bit. I think everyone has those "baptism by fire" challenges, no matter what stage/series. Maybe burning through them for the first time leads to yoga geekdom, but I don't know if stage 3 goes away for good.

    Yes, Stage 1, yoga zealotry, seems to parallel initial practice progress… the noticeable gain of flexibility and strength, improved eating and sleeping, weight loss (or whatever goal). This fuels the enthusiasm, makes one preach the yoga gospel.

    We are driven to the blogosphere when we realize other people just don't care or understand like we do. :-)

  5. Hello Yyogini, thank you for giving me so much material to write a post about. I find that I really love writing these somewhat tongue-in-cheek analysis posts :-) Good luck with stage 3!

    Great to hear about your "new" adventure, JayaK. Actually, I get up at 4:30 as well. I started doing this in 2007, after I went to Maui and did an asana intensive with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane. At the intensive, Nicki told us that she gets up at 4:30, for pretty much the same reasons as you do; she has to get the practice in before she makes breakfast for the kids, bring them to school, and see to other assorted householder duties. I didn't (and still don't) have kids, but I was so inspired by what she said that I decided to do likewise. I have not regretted that; I feel that I have more energy overall when I go to bed early and get up early. I usually spend the first couple of hours doing my Buddhist prayers, going to the bathroom, etc, and usually get on the mat between 6 and 6:30.

    Wow, we really are yoga geeks, aren't we? :-) I still see the Old Man from the Coffee Shop sometimes. Haven't spoken much to him, though :-) Maybe he is a geek of some sort too? :-) I haven't seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Will so do soon, so I can get some wisdom from Jeff Spicoli :-)

  6. Thanks for sharing, Ashtanga mummy. From what you are telling me, it sounds like many yogis in Eastern Europe bypass the evengelical/zealot stage, and go straight to Baptism by Fire. Is that true? Did you do your teacher training in Eastern Europe?

    Speaking of Eastern Europe, one of my "fellow yoga zealots" during grad school (we both taught yoga at the fitness center on campus) was a young woman from Poland (she moved to the U.S. with her husband, who was a grad student). I have great memories of practicing with her.

    Thanks, sereneflavor. I may be flattering myself, but I'm guessing I'm at stage 3, maybe bordering on stage 4.

    1. '...many yogis in Eastern Europe bypass the evengelical/zealot stage, and go straight to Baptism by Fire. Is that true?'

      I would say 10-15 years ago that would probably be true. Not fully bypassing but it was just different...

      There were only 2 dedicated yoga pioneers(Andrey Lappa and Andrey Sidersky) in the post-soviet space that had spread yoga far and wide. Andrey Lappa had extensively travelled to the US to teach workshops. The classes were tough, extremely powerful and lengthy. Only the fittest and most determinant students would stay. That is why pretty much from the first class you could see what are you in for.
      They both resided and tought in my home-city Kiev. I was a uni student at the time so all the money I had I was spending for yoga passes. Classes were expensive for a student budget.
      Yes I have done my first teacher training in Kiev and left for Australia but that's already another story:))

      I really like eastern european yogis of the early days with not many books or other resources they kept practicing, experimenting and finding that inner Guru through their practice.

    2. Very interesting, Ashtanga mummy. I have read a bit about Andrey Lappa, but have never had the opportunity to study with him. I have also read a bit about the Ukraine, but have never been there (have you ever read Jonathan Safran Foer's book, "Everything is Illuminated"? It was made into a movie a few years ago. It was shot in the Ukraine, and the cinematography was beautiful).

      "I really like eastern european yogis of the early days with not many books or other resources they kept practicing, experimenting and finding that inner Guru through their practice."

      Actually, I think this is also why the Ashtanga practice is so beautiful. At some point you just have to stop theorizing/analyzing/thinking, and just do the practice and let it change you. Sometimes, too much information gets in the way of practice and beginner's mind.

    3. I'm glad you've heard about Andrey Lappa! He was often away for weeks to teach in the US. We were missing him deeply but then some american students started to travel to Ukraine to practice at our studio it was kind of cool!

      I haven't read Jonathan Safran Foer's book but would love to see the move. Thanks for pointing out!:)

  7. Hello wanderingmb, I think you are right that stages 3 and 4 cycle into each other quite a bit. You overcome/resolve one obstacle, and are in stage 4 (maybe 5?). And then another obstacle/issue comes up, and you find yourself in stage 3 again. At least, this has been my experience.

    Yes, I don't know if this is a good thing, but I have realized that the blogosphere is a very unique place to share my geeky yoga thoughts and ideas. Sometimes I feel that I know other bloggers (whom I have never met) better than people I see everyday.

  8. love this post, think I'm in a geek tangent stage, that of in the closet. I avoid conversations about yoga with people who either have no idea what I'm talking about or no interest whatsoever. Shame because I do so love to talk yoga ; )

    1. A "closet yoga geek"? Interesting. But I do understand (and also feel) the need not to talk yoga with people whom you know would probably have no interest in the geekiness.