Friday, March 2, 2012

Eddie Stern on teaching yoga, looking good and being healthy, and injury

I was just reading this recent article that the NYT wrote about Eddie Stern and his Broome street shala/temple. It made me think of my last visit to NYC, in December 2009. I was visiting in the city for a few days, and I would go to Eddie's shala to do my practice first thing every morning. By the time I got there every morning (between 6 to 6:30 a.m.), there were already many other Ashtangis who were there and way into their practices. The energy in the room was intense yet relaxed at the same time. Everybody was super-focused on their individual practices, yet, at the same time, because everybody knew what exactly they had to do (and knew that Eddie and his capable assistant were watching over them), there was this feeling of being able to give oneself over completely to the practice. Good times those were, as Yoda might say (I seem to be in a Yoda state of mind these past couple of days :-)).

I also watched the video interview with Eddie that is embedded in the article. Good stuff. There were a few things Eddie said that really resonated with me:

(1) "I don't even now feel qualified to teach yoga. I'm doing my practicing and exploring."

Well, if somebody like Eddie Stern can say that, then I don't feel so bad about my lack of success thus far in the yoga business, being the neophyte that I am :-) But seriously, what's the hurry? I honestly feel very privileged and fortunate to be able to do my own practice at my own pace without having the responsibility of teaching others. And there's a lot to learn yet. If this sounds a little selfish, well, maybe it is. But being selfish is not a crime.

(2) "I look around on the streets, and I look at people in their 60s and 70s and 80s, and I think to myself, 'How do I want to be when I get to be that age?'"

This really hit the nail on the head for me. Actually, it was this thought that really got me into yoga back in grad school. I stumbled upon yoga in grad school when I went into a power yoga class in the campus gym more or less by accident (for the not-so-glorious details of this story, see this post).

Soon after I started yoga, I found myself looking at many of my professors and asking myself, "Is this what I want to be like in 20 or 30 years?" I looked at their physical conditions (which, frankly speaking, left much to be desired), and compared their physical conditions with those of senior teachers like David Swenson or Richard Freeman. And it seemed pretty obvious, at least to me, who I would rather be like 20 or 30 years down the road.

Now, before you start accusing me of being ageist or physical-condition-ist (or whatever "ist" there is out there in this very politically correct society in which we live; honestly, political correctness can be so stifling at times. But this is something for another post...), let me bring your attention to something else that Eddie says in the video:

(3) "Yoga is both physical and spiritual... [People say] 'I want to be super fit, I want to wear great clothes, I want to be beautiful and forever young.' Okay, fine, let those things be there. But infuse those things with some deeper purpose: You want to have a fit body, so you can do good work in the world."

This, again, hits the nail on the head for me. This was also one of those things about yoga that really attracted me to it when I first started practicing. At that time, I had started noticing (at least in the part of this country that I lived in) that many people (especially so-called intellectual types) have a very curious two-fold attitude towards the physical body and physical wellness. On the one hand, they seem to be more or less resigned to the fact that, because they are so dedicated to their professional careers or whatever it is that they are doing for a living, their bodies are bound to break down before their time, and there's nothing they can do about it. On the other hand, they also seem to regard with suspicion anybody who is fit or healthy or has a nice body: It's almost as if they think that if you have the time to be fit and have a nice body, you must not be working hard enough in your professional career. Or maybe all this is just my perception of people's attitudes from listening to the way many so-called intellectual types speak rather disdainfully of anything physical. You may disagree with my observation here.

At any rate, at least for me, yoga offered a way to resolve this false dilemma: You owe it to yourself to become strong and healthy if you want to be "successful" and do good in the world, both for yourself and others. I think B.K.S Iyengar said pretty much the same thing somewhere in Light on Yoga; to paraphrase, I think he said that asana functions to develop a strong and healthy body that you can then dedicate to the service of God.  

(4) When asked by the interviewer, "Have you ever had any kind of serious injury?" Eddie nonchalantly replied, "Serious? No, no..." And then went on to add, "I once had a rib popped out of place for three years, but I survived." 

Three years?! Whoa... that's some courage and faith in the practice. I mean, if you were to tell anybody on the street that yoga might give you an injury that's going to take three years to heal, I can bet almost anything that that person would probably gasp in horror, and then say, "Well... why do yoga, then?" Of course, there's also the possibility that that person might be William J. Broad; in which case, you will have another one of those wrecking-your-body articles coming (picture this upcoming NYT article: "Ashtanga can pop your ribs like popcorn").

Anyway, I would love to be able to ask Eddie how he managed to find the strength and the courage to continue practicing through something like this for three years. I'm not saying this to glorify injury. But the fact of the matter is that despite their best efforts, many Ashtangis will face pain or injury at some point in their practice careers. So rather than pretend that pain and injury is this bogeyman that one can avoid if one were "careful" enough or "evolved" enough, it might be more productive to talk about what to do when (notice I said "when", not "if") one does face pain or injury. And it seems that Eddie might have some useful insights to offer in this area.

Oh, and speaking of pain and injury, my SI joint is feeling quite a bit better (see previous post). It turns out that paying more attention to rotating the thighs inward during upward dog helps a lot. Who knew?  


  1. I too work with professors, and I have always noticed the disconnect between them and their bodies. They have over-developed minds, and their emotions and bodies seem to be under-developed. Not all of them of course--but many of them. I guess it's where you put your focus. I try to work on all three, but the balance is hard. It's also very problematic (I think) to be overly focused on your body. I know these folks as well. So balance is the key. Hard to achieve though.


    1. Yes, Tara, balance is the key. Sometimes I wonder if I am judging academics (and by extension, myself) too harshly. After all, we are all just trying our best to make sense of our lives in this very crazy world. We have yoga, and they have whatever it is that they have.