[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?