by Ali Valdez
It’s fair to say the world of yoga is evolving at rocket speed in the West, and this means all of us who care about the shape and future of the practice of yoga have some soul searching to do.
Yoga in the West is a physical practice, one which has otherwise skeptics noting a greater change in their state of mind, slowly, one organic sparkling probiotic drink at a time, walking towards a healthier more mindful lifestyle.
When I started hosting retreats years back, eight attendees seemed like an admirable goal and there were not as many options out there for a yoga getaway as there are now. Today, double that is more the going rate. We are turning people away.
My Facebook feed is inundated with at least four invites per week to travel off to exotic locales to perfect my downward-facing dog and participate in some Americanization of Hindu or Buddhist tradition.
I consider this a good thing more or less. I am seeing more and more people, even less likely types integrating yoga into their planned time off. The reasons are simple: even shitty yoga makes people feel fantastic. Yoga is a miracle for the individual and the opportunity to feel fantastic and forge new friendships with erstwhile strangers, providing more yoga asana and peace of mind to more people. Jai!
Be it proliferation of health food stores, greater environmental awareness, people joining together to combat poverty, helping others in their community, trying a kirtan, eschewing Girl Scout cookies, the world is seeing a shift that can almost single-handedly be contributed to the rise in popularity of yoga.
Everyone is winning in the yoga movement, but it is important that the teachers continue to grow and stay ahead of the passing fads and Twitter trends.
How can we do this beyond the obvious practice? Easy: we are ambassadors of the yoga lifestyle.
This is not to be confused with a brand ambassador or getting electrified traveling the festival circuit but the day to day steps, the amino acid building blocks to the protein of the practice. The teacher should carry a high standard of quality in all folds of their life for the sake of their own development. This is not about Instagram fandom, raw Kombucha or trips to the Tummy Temple; this is about how a teacher can easily lead by example a lifestyle that holds up to yogic principles in our daily life. No one knows all the answers (although they seem pretty well spelled out in a variety of ancient texts), but here is my short list of savoring the fruits of the modern yogi lifestyle:
1. Keeping it real. By real, this means to yourself but not excusing universal truths; karma tends to keep score. It is not your role to emulate another, although if you have a teacher who has sound ethical teaching, that is a fine place to start. This requires svadyaya, self study. I am in my mid-forties, so I think getting handle on this at my age is indicative of a long-hard battle not to waste energy copying or trying to be like others but being grounded in being yourself. You are effortless and confident because you really are ok with being who you are.
2. Not forgetting the two limbs preceding yoga asana. Oh yeah, yama and niyama, those guys! I have chosen not to drink, smoke, do drugs and have been practicing celibacy for a mind-numbing amount of years. But the past few years I have been struggling with consuming animal products, something I had no problems, even since childhood, avoiding.
Somewhere, some yogi is throwing the ahimsa card of condemnation my way; I get it and am working on it.
It’s not my place to say what is right or wrong, but it is part of my personal growth to recognize and honor my values, in spite of being out of vogue and not a part of the yogic mainstream, and not condemn anyone who wears their yoga shoes differently than I do.
3. Test attachment and delayed gratification. It is easy to keep things status quo and preach the message of santosha (contentment). It’s very different when you are unbuttressed and handed by fate a sad hand to play. Weathering the storm with grace, accepting disappointments and maintaining a yogic perspective is challenging. See if when things are good, you can test willful discomfort and find ease. In our easy-to-get, easy-to-discard society, try slowing it down, jam in a monkey wrench to test your threshold. Find ways you like things quick and easy and challenge yourself to find grace in dialing it back. The slow food nation initiative and the increasing interest in unplugging and returning to snail mail, stationary and stamps for correspondence are gentle ways to do this. Park the car, try walking; make your food instead of buying it pre-made at Whole Foods. Donate all your money, make a personal sacrifice of time or energy for the sake of another when it’s the last thing you want to do, that takes some cajones.
Create the space between comfort and displeasure: then when things swirl out of control, you are still that adorable little Buddha in your red spandex pants slowly sipping your chai latte!
4. Respect all forms of yoga practice. Everyone these days thinks they know it all about the practice, and that everything revolves around the way they were taught. But few Westerners have actually followed the traditional yogic path, going completely under the tutelage of a master teacher, a true lineage bearer. I am not talking about the prolific or iconic scions of Western yoga, but real teachers. I’ll give you a hint: they aren’t famous, they are too busy doing yoga. Try new types of yoga and be resistant to critique or label them. Enjoy what they bring to you and your practice which is not always just asana.
5. Take responsibility for your practice: When you are a yoga teacher, or a seasoned practitioner, quit blaming the new teacher, the studio, the dirtiness of the mats. Your practice is your responsibility to make it the most it can be. A lousy practice 100% of the time tends to come from a lousy attitude. You don’t need to be holed up in an ashram in Rishikesh to find ‘yoga’; it’s the yoga of everyday life, your attitude and efforts that matter.
6. Don’t be hard on others (or yourself): Lighten up, laugh, give yourself a break. Yoga is indeed the science of perfection and the liberation of consciousness, but none of us would be here if we had it all figured out.
However, we might still be apt to wear our red spandex pants and sips those chai lattes.