Standing in the shower, I asked myself ‘Can I start afresh?’ as I recalled the early years of yoga, and the blissful ignorance of the rich philosophical framework that gives structures Hatha Yoga. Back then, I didn’t have a clue about Yamas, Niyamas, Kundalini, some guy called Patanjali, or the type of yoga I was practising. I was reaching up with my inhale, folding with my exhale, and was in awe at the moments of silence that kept me going back for more.
My diet started to change, I gossiped less, felt less inclined to have a boozy binge, and my insatiable appetite for shopping dwindled as I became slightly more mellow and less highly strung. When I read Yoga Mala a couple of years into weekly classes and saw these concepts of Yama and Niyama, it was like reading a self-help book that suddenly makes you realise you’re not that special, there’re plenty of others who have, are, and will go through the same thing. What was special in retrospect was that this change occurred without prior knowledge of a prescribed path, rather it unfolded organically. So this whole paragraph was flittering across my mind in a split second before asking ‘Can I start afresh?’
What is it that stops me from starting afresh? It’s a container filled with countless articles – which, ironically, this piece will contribute to – detailing metaphysical experiences, prescriptions for ‘best practice’, the subtle competition to post the most fantastic looking posture, that over the course of the last nine years have primed an often porous mind. It’s a container also filled with the students’ expectation to receive something within the confines of what is expected from yoga: chanting, sanskrit, and probably above all else, a set system of linear mechanical movements that swing from those postures for optimal health to those that have more negatives than positives.
Whilst yoga helped me to break the confines of old habits, learn how to figure things out for myself, and organically develop, the technology of yoga became tightly sealed sides of a container filled with dos and don’ts that served to only make the box – my perspective – smaller, more rigid, and less receptive.
And so is it possible to wash the mind of all the preconceptions, memories, and beliefs that provide a patchwork of what is constituted as ‘Charlene, the yoga student and teacher’? Instead of practising and teaching within a sealed box where old thinking, prescribed methods and applications are the only tools accepted/available, can I see these for what they really are: concepts that further compartmentalise, placing me further within the mind and out of the reality right now?
I guess the box started cracking a couple of years ago, but I’m only seeing now how I was repressed by my own expectation of what yoga should be. In an online debate with Ido Portal two months ago – a person I once said I’d never want to get into a debate with – I was astonished at my increasing clarity and position on yoga as I put it into the written form for the first time. In response to an extensive thread, Shai Faran, dancer, choreographer, and a person who inspires me immensely, made a simple yet sobering comment:
‘Yes, yoga is aiming to target different layers of our being like the internal work, the physical aspect and all what comes in between but isn’t dance aiming for the same thing? Isn’t Ido [Portal] aiming for the same thing? Isn’t any high quality movement practice is about much more then “just” the movement? Dancing is not just a way of moving, it’s a way of living, it’s a point of view, it’s as internal and deep as the deepest meditation practices, if you only make it like that. Of course not all the dancers or the dancer teachers will emphasize it (or might not even be aware of it), but also not all the yoga teachers will. The fact that there is a profession attached to dance doesn’t mean that it’s about the profession. The fact that there is a performance (on stage) attached to it doesn’t mean it’s only about the presentation to the audience. It’s a practice.
We are all aiming for the same thing, in different ways. We all want our practice and life to be holistic and to make sense. Yoga is no different in that sense so don’t try to put it any higher than other practices.’
Just to repeat: Yoga is no different in that sense so don’t try to put it any higher then other practices.
What she perceived and what I see when I look at the yoga community is this covert ‘holier than thou’ attitude, whereby one school is more spiritual than another, and yoga is, well, more spiritual than everything else. Full stop. It may not be said explicitly, but it is most definitely there.
By way of example, when the physical shortcomings of yoga are highlighted, the yoga community falls into two camps: those that say ‘wahoo, I’m really glad we’re critically looking at this’ and those that turn a blind-eye because yoga is the path to transcendence, always a place to ‘get to’ and never actually ‘be’. Although the the physical body is the portal in which yoga enters, talk of the physical is restricted to the ‘accepted’ postures, and the rest is seen to be side-stepping from the ultimate goal of enlightenment whereby the body is a distraction.
For a couple of years, I belonged in this second camp. I thought that if I learnt the correct count, the correct pronunciation of sanskrit, the progression through crazy postures, I’d reach the heady heights of samadhi. In following a prescribed path as read through countless books and various teachings, the mental block I had towards the correct count and sanskrit was perceived as laziness, and the constant aching muscles and joints were seen as cleansing and necessary to reach crazy-arseasana. When I actually felt that yoga is always there – irrespective of what I do – and can never be contained by external ideas, my container had no room for this change in perspective and I had to release the beliefs, identity, hopes, but mainly fears in exchange for something bigger.
It was looking outside of Hatha Yoga that I saw this whole world where yoga as a state was abundant, but these people don’t place enlightenment as a means to an end. They just do what they do without attaching philosophical meaning to it, which doesn’t make it less than, but actually gives them freshness that is unlikely to be found in a practice underpinned by notions of what is and isn’t spiritual. Their performances may put them on pedestals, but their experiences do not. Unfortunately in the yoga community, I see both performance and experience being chased and emulated.
And so it’s little wonder that those exceptional athletes, movers, performers, and inventors outside and within the the yoga community are somewhat astonished by the delusional thinking masked as spirituality and purification, whereby they too regularly experience heightened concentration and immersion, but do not attach importance and self-elevation to these experiences. They simply get on with it with no attachment. Highlighting the not-so-special experience of samadhi, yoga and meditation teacher Michael Stone writes in Awake in the World:
‘Of course we must also remember that yogic samadhi is nothing special. All kinds of people enter into samadhi all of the time without knowing anything about it. We jut happen to be doing this practice of body and mind. But some gardeners, for instance, are just in it, just doing it; maybe that don’t think about it all that much!’
When I see proclamations of ‘traditional yoga’, ‘spiritual yoga’ and ‘Patanjali’s yoga’, I just see more covert mud-smearing on everything that falls outside of these strict confines – it’s merely a case of seeking authority for authenticity and credibility, and the imposition of what one should and should not practice and experience. The framework that yoga philosophy provides for such experiences is not to be disregarded and has allowed me to make sense of experiences, but when the framework constrains then it’s time to expand and not dogmatically follow something according to beliefs but in accordance to the actual experience.
And so I want to wash my mind from these concepts that are grounded in outside authority and expectation, not inner experience. I want to wash my mind from the inherent ideas of unquestionable devotion and emulation of other, higher and lower selves (and,therefore, higher and lower others), and all the other religious-based concepts in order to enact what I know to be true: I am my own guru, everything I know to be true is there, I only need to trust myself enough to lay down the kindling and light the flame.
The odds my being defied into becoming manifest is testament to the unique intelligence of this body and the consciousness that animates it, and in believing this, why would I want to act and teach otherwise?
Can I start afresh? I am each time I apply discernment and stay awake. When teaching, I’m trying to step back so that the student is encouraged to find their own expression through various movement capabilities. Silent moments linger and are not filled with unnecessary verbiage which masks their own greatness. Just as a good therapist allows the patient to unearth their own conclusions and solutions, I want to be the teacher that provides a supportive environment in which everyone already knows what they need to, only the space and trust is needed to unearth it.
So now I remind myself of what I said to the class last night: ‘We are all buddhas who inherently know what is right for us. We just need to let go of the concepts, take down the pedestals, and sow the seeds of our inherent spaciousness.’