Friday, June 15, 2012

Yoga brings me to my knees

Literally. During the finishing backbends this morning, I tried to follow Kino's instructions in her recent video as closely as possible in order to grab my ankles in Chakrabandhasana (see this post). First, I grabbed my left ankle while keeping the right hand firmly grounded in the mat. Then I grabbed my right ankle while keeping the left hand firmly grounded in the mat. Finally, I walked both my hands towards the ankles and grabbed them. I succeeded in grabbing both ankles for one (maybe two) breaths, before I felt something pull my entire body forward... Next thing I knew, I found myself on my knees, like a samurai waiting to be beheaded.

[I was going to insert a picture here, but all the samurai pictures I could find on Google images were either too gory, or too cheesy. So you have to use your imagination here :-)]

Isn't it rather gory (not to mention ahimsa-violating) to compare backbending to getting beheaded? Well, yes. But not necessarily in a bad way, I think. In his book on the Intermediate Series, Gregor Maehle talks about how doing the leg-behind-the-head postures in the Intermediate Series can be compared to a beheading on a symbolic level: Bringing the leg behind the head can be seen as an act of "beheading" one's ego, because being egoistic is often associated with living in one's head. In this way, doing the LBH postures can be an expression of humility. 

I think the same thing can be true of deep backbends too. Because they demand every ounce of our attention and focus (and sometimes bring us to our knees!), doing backbends can also be an exercise in ego reduction. Think about it. No, really...

Think about it.
[Image taken from here]


Speaking of ego, Carol Horton recently wrote a very thoughtful blog post about what it takes to be a "successful" yoga teacher in North America these days, where "successful" is used here in the sense of "being able to attract big numbers of students to their classes, teach nationally or even internationally on the yoga circuit, sell DVDs or other tie-ins, etc."

She identifies four qualities that teachers need to possess in order to be "successful" in the contemporary North American yoga scene: 

(1) Kick-Ass Asana

(2) Good Looks

(3) Charisma

(4) Business Savvy

For a detailed explanation of what exactly these four things mean, see Carol's post. But I'm guessing that, with the possible exception of charisma, everything else is pretty much self-explanatory. While these qualities are in and of themselves ethically neutral--as Carol notes, the teacher who is able to float from crow to handstand "may have the personal qualities of a saint, an a-hole, or anything in between"--mainstream culture tends to hold them up "as an indicator of what’s valuable, aspirational, and admirable". And teachers who possess these qualities can easily exploit gullible students who think that possessing these qualities is all there is to being a "great" yoga teacher, and go on to wield these qualities as weapons with which to manipulate, dominate and dis-empower these unsuspecting individuals. 

Which is true. Sadly, we all know that such manipulation, domination and dis-empowerment has happened, and is probably happening even as I write this. And these things will probably continue to happen into the future, unless we want to go so far as to come up with a set of super-stringent rules and regulations to try to regulate the yoga "industry", and erect barriers to entry that bar people who can perform kick-ass asana, are good-looking, have great charisma, and have business savvy from ever becoming yoga teachers. Which means, among other things, that Kino will be barred from teaching for life! Or, at least, for as long as she is capable of performing kick-ass asana, is good-looking, charismatic and has business savvy...

 Barred for Life
(Gosh, why is she still smiling?)
[Image taken from here]

But on the upside (?), this also means that the only person you will be left with is--me! As you can see from my description of my practice this morning and my other practice reports on this blog, I am far from being able to perform kick-ass asana. Nor am I good-looking (at least not in the conventional sense.) Nor do I have business savvy, considering what I do for a living (Remember the adage: "Those who can't do..."). Am I charismatic? Well, probably not. Carol quotes Max Weber, who defines charisma as: 

"a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities…not accessible to the ordinary person."

Well, I certainly do not possess any such "certain quality". (Need I say more?) 

But this isn't supposed to be a post about why I am the only person alive who can be a yoga teacher. So let's try to get back on track here. As I was saying, unless we want to go so far as to erect barriers to entry that prevent people who possess the qualities that Carol mentions from ever becoming yoga teachers, it looks like we are stuck with being in a position in which manipulation, domination and dis-empowerment of unsuspecting yoga students by "famous" yoga teachers will happen and will continue to happen into the foreseeable future...

But so far, we have only looked at one side of the equation: We have been focusing our attention on teachers. What about the students, the unsuspecting gullible hoi polloi who get themselves into such positions whereby they are subject to such manipulation, domination and dis-empowerment? Is it possible that they--or we, since we are students too--may also have a responsibility for their choices of which classes to take, which teachers to study with, and (perhaps) which lineage to follow? After all, it is commonly said that, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." Could it be that all these good-looking, kick-ass-asana-performing, charismatic and business savvy A-holes have appeared in the guise of yoga teachers, and are able to use their skills and talents to manipulate and dominate unsuspecting students because for better or worse (for worse, probably), these teachers are all that these students in question are ready for at this point in time? Just a thought: I really don't have any answers here. But as one of my favorite yoga teachers would say, "Think about it..." 

Think about it; no, really...
    [Image taken from here]   


  1. NICE post, Nobel. I love the twist at the end and totally agree that students are at least as responsible for choosing and supporting trustworthy teachers as teachers are responsible for being honest in the first place. Thanks for turning all our fingers right back at ourselves. :-)

    1. Thanks Megan. Hmm... I don't think it's as much a matter of turning fingers back at ourselves as it is a matter of... how should I put this... operating from a place of acceptance and love rather than from a place of fear? I just feel that when we accuse some teacher or other of using asana prowess, charisma or whatnot to manipulate or dominate, we are more often than not doing so out of a certain fear or insecurity. People will teach what they want, and students who are attracted to these people will be so attracted because of whatever projections they are projecting onto the teacher. It's almost a law of nature, and no amount of analysis will make any difference one way or the other.