Monday, February 27, 2012

Back to Basics: Yoga as I know it, 101

Of course, I've been following the Anusara scandal lately. And I have many, many thoughts about it. And there's many of you that I'd love to sit down and talk them over with - hashing it all out over a cup of tea. Or maybe a luscious glass of red wine.

But otherwise - right now, I'm feeling like it's not my story to tell. So I'm going to write about what I know . . .

Which is:

I spent two hours practicing by myself today in a mostly empty room. And it was wonderful. And I realized that - yes, I am so, so blessed to have this knowledge. Of how to get into my tight spots and feel them start to open. To sense something wonderful, and even mysterious, about such a seemingly banal process. Um, just stretching . . .  yeah, just stretching my mind open again, prying off the scabs of ancient samskaras and feeling the liberated fresh skin breathing underneath.


Mia, a Chicago yoga teacher I don't really even know (we volunteer for the same organization and briefly met once) sent me (and the other members of our little "Yoga for Recovery" group) an email yesterday explaining that she's just had a conversation with a MD who works at the Cook County Jail (where our group runs yoga classes for women on Fridays) that made her realize just how little she (and by extension, all of us) knows about the women we're teaching there.
i felt ignorant. maybe i'm the only one in the dark, but did you know that our clients are in this usually court-ordered "sheriff's women's justice program" for 120 days and are drug addicts &/or mentally disabled &/or prostitutes trying to leave the life?
She embedded the link below, which previews a documentary on prostitution produced by the Oprah channel. Surprisingly to me, it highlights the program we've connected with through our program. Lisa - the woman who starts speaking at 1 minute 24 seconds into the video - is someone I've worked with a number of times. She's our insider point person and a huge yoga booster.

Lisa lights up the room with her enthusiasm whenever she helps me set up the room for yoga, chatting brightly and energetically as we push furniture to the sides of the room. I had no clue that she's been a prostitute for 20 years. I can't even imagine.

But while we're working together to get ready to provide a yoga class to a dozen or so women, the truth is that . . . I don't even care. I don't mean that in a callous way. I just mean that - if we're working together, and if we both believe that the yoga's worth our time and effort, then - we're just  together, absorbed in that project, in that moment. And the past and the present and society and its cruelties and inequalities don't go away. But they don't divide us either. We're just there, dedicating some time to some yoga - and to some exploration, and some healing.

And while there's no silver bullet, there is a distinct, real sense that - this is valuable. It does work. How? Why? Right then, it doesn't matter. I don't have to analyze it, prove it, or even say it. I just notice that my mind is clearer, that I feel more grounded. And I see enough students lighting up, and smiling, and thanking us as they say "goodbye" to feel assured that no, it's not just me - they're getting a lot out of the yoga, too.

And it's a good feeling. 

Sneak Peek: Prostitution: Leaving The Life
Prostitution: Leaving the Life tells the story of the world of prostitution from the people that know it best - the women that live it. Three former prostitutes work with the Cook County Sheriff to help women in Cook County Jail leave the life, and gain the life skills and confidence to escape prostitution.


Now, the latest iteration in the endlessly spooling Anusara scandal story is "Science of Yoga" author William J. Broad writing with easy, jocular journalistic authority in the New York Times that since yoga "began as a sex cult," practitioners today shouldn't really be surprised when libidinous gurus color outside the lines when it comes to ill-advised or even abusive sex with their followers. OK . . . sigh. How to muster the energy to even start to address all the problems involved with framing the issues at hand in this way? Right now, I don't have it in me. So I won't.


There's a lot of interesting talk about Tantra circulating around in the newly opened space created by John Friend's current implosion. What I used to call the "Anusasra Police" formerly had Tantra on commodified lock-down - it was their thing, damn it, and they were going to control the terms of discourse so that it was quite clear that they had their copyright right there, squarely on top of it.

Well, that's no longer the case. And that's good. But still, all of this intricate Tantra talk that's been circulating in the blogosphere recently can just feel like a lot of - blah blah blah. At least to me.

Bottom line is that: I don't really care about your religion or your ideology or your atheism or your science or your whatever. But if you love yoga, and find that the physicality of asana can in fact ignite some magic for you - then it seems to me that the core issues are quite simple:

Is it helping you to heal, and through that process, helping others?
Is it helping you to grow in wisdom, and compassion?
Is is helping you to connect with something mysterious, and sustaining?

If we can pretty much answer "yes" to those questions, then - do we really need anything more?


  1. Excellent set of questions--really put things in perspective. Thanks.

  2. glad you posted this carol

    though i feel there may be as much alarm in the reaction to the nytimes alarm-article about sex and yoga as the alarm in that article -

    these issues have dumped yoga off the map several times the last hundred years, and at least, this time, there are folk like you and nancy adler and yogadork addressing it

    separating yoga's physical benefits from its spiritual religious roots, was something i decided was the only way i could re-accept yoga, back a few years ago

    i have enough of my own religion and spirituality that mesh quite well with all that yoga has to offer me

    and we all know there's been more than enough sex scandal stuff within our own western religions

    looks like people are people all over the world after all ;-)

    i've taken from yoga what is useful for me, merged it with what is valuable to me, and am happy with yoga that way

    those who get so angry when someone doesn't follow doctrines or know all the ancient details, are as off base, for me, as western spiritual leaders who think we have to know every verse of everything to be able to live or understand what is or may be good in our lives today

    history is important, i'm a huge fan and proponent, but the core stuff, if it's already within us, is just that, already present and available

    so yes, yoga has sexual components, so does any devotion or concentration of attention, in any religion and in any of the arts

    if we are a connected mass of being within ourselves, we connect everything, including our sexuality

    but these alarms about alarms about yoga's sexuality, when various yoga-celebrators openly strut in bikinis or show humorous spoofs on musicals or simply enjoy fit-sensuality, are, to me, simply a self-conscious secret being let out ;-)

    all physical activity should be sensual, sexy, energizing

    that it can become wearying abused neglected et al, is just another thing we as people do, as with food, other exercise, relationships etc

    i think this kind of discussion, back and forth, by broad and everyone else with an interest in yoga, might be all that keeps yoga from, again, being relegated to the outhouse of mainstream american interests

    the fitness component alone should survive in any good wellness program

  3. I, too, weary of this latest scandal. And the Broad article was disappointing, as I rather like his "Fresh Air" interview (altho not the NYT magazine piece before it). I don't see how the "original intentions" of yoga justify any of John Friend's shenanigans...any one who read the NYT profile last year could see they whole enterprise seemed unsustainable. And how does Tantra lead to messing with your employees' pensions?

    What thrills me is the idea of what yoga can become. Like any living language, it has a history that may or may not wholly relate to its present. It is not frozen in the past but is ever changing based on the current speakers/participants.

    I take comfort in the fact that few, if any, of my students notice or care about any of this. They come to class because the practice speaks to them and improves their quality of life. They are not particularly concerned with dogma and origins; the like how yoga speaks to them in the present. And this is what I try to remind myself when I get too bogged down in the hyperbole...

  4. Broad seems to be stoking the flames to make a buck and get his name out there. That article was worse than his yoga injury article. It struck me as a deeply shallow understanding of tantra, combined with great muckracking tactics.

    Like Brenda, I felt like he was almost offering John Friend a pass because it's "already happened so many times before" and the "practice is built on sex anyway." And of course, the NYT loved it cause it helped sell newspapers.

    I have stayed mostly away from the scandal because I just don't know enough about it, and frankly 2010 and part of 2011 were riddled with Zen sex scandals to talk about, so I'm talked out about such things:)

  5. Singing my song, M'am.

    This is the disparity between thinking about yoga and doing yoga. We spend much time analyzing what others do (something I love to do) but yoga is in the doing.

    When we are bored or tired with the noise around it, we notice that yoga has been standing quietly by like an innocent kid who's become the subject of adult concern and argument.

    And still, the discussions offer insight, information, stimulation which is important when observing those who do yoga and who we are in relationship to each other.

    It's all good.

  6. Beautiful thoughts on how yoga teachers can help people heal.

  7. agree with all the above <3 because it's YOUR practice. Have A Nice Day Ya'll! om shanti

  8. I feel the same way when I'm teaching at the prison, Carol. I love the way the stories that have brought each of us to that room fall away as we practice together. I'm always moved by the healing power of yoga, especially on my Fridays.

  9. I am very interested in yoga in people who are/have been incarcerated. There is a great need for healing to take place in genre.

    I might be missing something here but I don't really see the connection between the JF scandal and yoga in prisons. Is the link just sex or am I missing something? Please explain.