I’ve dedicated the first part of 2011 to yoga and understanding it better. When everyone was making new year’s resolutions, I was dwelling on the things I’d need to achieve peak physical condition within this year. I thought, I’d need to run like a maniac, maybe one thousand miles in this calendar year. Well, that was going to destroy my knees because I’ve got flat feet. So I’d need to do lots of yoga also to repair what I’m destroying. I also thought I’d need to do tons of speed and strength training, all of which would diminish my flexibility. So I’d need to do lots of yoga to stay flexible. I also thought I’d go through all sorts of spells of laziness during the process, and to me, laziness isn’t just lying in bed not wanting to get up, or skipping days because I don’t feel perfect. Its also losing mental focus while I’m exercising, so I’d need to do lots of yoga to condition my mind to stay on task.
To that point, I’d only practiced Bikram yoga formally (like in a studio, not TV yoga) and I’d done well with it, but I knew that saving every penny to stack up monthly unlimiteds at a Bikram studio wasn’t what I needed. I needed to understand yoga and what it meant to me and other people. I took what I’d already known and created a home practice. This was one of the most productive things I’ve ever done in my life. That twenty-two minute vinyasa program I made up changed my view of yoga, and a few other things changed, like my body. My body was slimmer, leaner, and stronger than it had ever been. I’ve always been an early bird, and it was easy for me to wake up at 6am to get it done every day.
Then I followed up on an idea I’d been cultivating for a while: reviewing yoga studios. At first, I wanted to review Bikram studios in New York City, but when I saw and felt the results of my unheated home practice, I became brave enough to try different sorts of yoga. The result was a tremendous week at YogaWorks. In taking a variety of classes at each of their four New York City locations, I got to try many of the elements of yoga that had always scared me, like:
- Yoga without a mirror
- Wood floors
- Unfamiliar styles
- Yoga blocks and straps
What I ended up with was a totally different view of yoga than what I got when I started Bikram in August of 2008. At the time, I saw Bikram as a godsend form of fitness that I would attack and master. Now I see it as this corporate entity, more of a structured pyramid scheme created by a man who’s carefully calculated his business to scare Americans into thinking that his yoga is the only type that exists. I don’t blame him, in one of my favorite movies, “Apocalypse Now,” Harrison Ford says in the briefing room that its difficult to resist the impulse to play God. Well, I came to learn that most yoga provides a deep, existential feeling, and if Americans are introduced to this feeling through Bikram yoga, then the American impulse is not to question it, but to become loyal to something they don’t fully understand and the person who has created it. Its the same way we can all cook or be crafty but we’re loyal to Emeril or Martha. We can all invest money but we’re loyal to Jim Cramer. We can all vote and be politically aware but we’re loyal to Glen Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Rachel Maddow. Americans, even with all of their so-called freedoms, have made this an incredibly easy place to play God and build a following.
It became obvious to me that Bikram Choudhury created his yoga to be effective, challenging, and attractive to Americans. Even though I had a great deal of confidence in the effectiveness of his yoga, I learned more in one week of practicing regular yoga than I’d learned in years of practicing Bikram yoga. I also came to understand that the yoga body, like all of the lean, strong, slender bodies I saw were the norm at regular yoga studios, and there were a lot more in the regular yoga studios I saw than at Bikram yoga studios, even without the heat and sweating. The yogis I met all ate better, lived better, and practiced more than the Bikram yogis I’d known. Aside from the hardcore Bikram yogis I know who take their practices and subsequently, their lives, more seriously, Bikram studios are full of “Yoga Riff Raff” or people who are practicing for some dumb reason, like weight loss, and treat it like a sweaty aerobics class. They never bring any of the more basic elements of discipline to the practice and hence, they see only a small weight loss and none of the real benefits. When I take Bikram classes with these individuals and they’re huffing and puffing because they’re out of breath or they’re disregarding stillness or they’re doing anything else that ruins the basic premise of the yoga, I can’t lie, it steals my peace. I encountered no Yoga Riff Raff at YogaWorks, but I did find the opposite-”Yoga Snobs.”
As bad as it sounds, its a privilege to be a Yoga Snob. It means that you’re so serious about your practice that you’re looking to shoo away the Yoga Riff Raff with the negative energy broom. In a positive sense though, it means real discipline, dedication, and proficiency. Whenever I struggled around these yogis and teachers, I always tried to do more to show that I was willing to work at my weaknesses because to me, that is all that separated us attending those classes from those who just wanted to look better. All of these people already looked good, and had achieved that through their quests to erase their weaknesses. In the words of Yoga Guru Baron Baptiste, “Yoga doesn’t work, PEOPLE work, and the yoga comes to life.” When we can get Americans to understand that, we can all understand yoga a little better.
But there’s another reason we can’t really grasp it: We think it will interfere with our religious beliefs. That’s another topic for another blog. Maybe for part two of this discussion.