About fifteen years ago, one of my yoga students brought her husband to a class. He had never taken yoga before. An older man, though in no way “old,” he practiced next to his wife as I led the class. When we began to move through some balance poses, this person started to fall, to wobble, to become truly unbalanced. “Shit,” he said. “Jesus,” he said. “What the bleep,” he said. He got angrier and angrier as we continued even as I said, as I always do, that the point is not to stay in the pose, but to focus the gaze and keep on breathing no matter what comes up.
On the surface what came up was his anger. He was angry. But more truly what came up was his ego. I didn’t know this person but my sense of him was as an accomplished, successful person in the world. Probably someone who was able to do most of what he set out to do. And here he was, eating so much humble-pie he had to throw it right back. I didn’t mind. I didn’t take it personally. But it was a fascinating external representation of what a lot of us go through internally.
In the US at this moment in time, when someone says “Yoga,” you think _____? Yoga poses, right? Downward dog, a class with other people, a teacher training where you learn warrior one, and so on. If someone says to you, “I want to learn yoga,” nine times out of ten what they mean is the physical practice.
But yoga does NOT mean yoga poses. What happened to the man who came to my class was that he experienced an invitation to yoga through yoga pose practice. That’s because yoga poses work through our bodies to get to our minds, hearts and spirits. If all you ever do for your yoga practice are yoga poses, then you have done something valuable. But if all you ever do for your yoga practice are yoga poses, then you have missed something very valuable.
The reason why that man felt an attack on his ego while doing a simple standing yoga pose is because yoga poses DO confront our egos. That man, however, did not come back. He didn’t like it and he didn’t feel he could do it so he never came back. For those who are naturally strong and flexible (as so many yoga teachers are), they also miss out on some of the gifts of ego confrontation that come to the rest of us. (Think of all the former ballet dancers become famous yoga teachers.) Flexibility and strength are not the hallmarks of yoga. At least if you only have them in your body.
Yoga is a philosophical practice born from a religious tradition. The word itself means Union or more literally, “to yoke.” Yoga poses are the merest fraction of the entire practice. Social media influencer, advocate, and yoga teacher, Susan Barkataki is one of a few in our current yoga scene working to return our minds back to a more accurate understanding of yoga. But even before she hit the scene, and even before there was a scene, the teachings of yoga have always been about liberation–of the individual and the collective.
When I share with my yoga students my writing about the Texas abortion ban, I write as a yoga teacher. It is not politics to me. It is a spiritual issue. Yoga is deeply and fundamentally about liberation. It is not deeply and fundamentally about your hamstrings. Or the size of your but. Or whether or not you can touch your toes. It is deeply and fundamentally an anti-racist practice. Not simply because its roots are in a country that is not white, but because it exists as a method where humans can work to attain unity. Racism, like sexism and anti-semitism, and all the others, is about division and dis-unity–creating it both within an individual person and within a society.
YOGA is a philosophy of life. Yoga is a practice of deepening humanity. During my more than two decades of on-the-ground teaching (not teacher trainings, not workshops in Bali, just at YMCAs and in stuffy old church rooms), I have taught yoga from my personal experience. There is no other way to teach it! You can not teach beyond your own level of understanding (though of course you can fake it and pretend.) To the extent that I have experienced yoga as a pathway to freedom, then I can share that. But even if I share it imperfectly, yoga is a pathway to freedom. It teaches personal and global liberation. It is for our very souls as well as our bodies. I have failed my students if I have ever given them the sense that yoga is nothing but a physical practice for physical health. As I wrote in my article on the Texas abortion ban: “Autonomy over our body is fundamental to the yoga tradition and to every sacred spiritual path. What I have always taught is a restoration to wholeness–and our wholeness is not perfection or nirvana but the holding together of the humanity and divinity indwelling in each of us….”
If you teach yoga poses to someone filled with hatred, someone acting out their racism, someone oppressing another, than you will have a fit and healthy unwell person. If you teach yoga to that same person, than something could and may change within them.
To me this is neither political nor personal but integral to the yogic path—and any other spiritual path, in fact. Our personal good must increase the good of this planet and the other people on it, OR it is not good. I am not a political person. I see these as spiritual problems and our work on the yoga mat is a spiritual practice. “In this broadest sense, yoga refers to any psychospiritual technology that creates a ‘reunion with the truth’–in any spiritual tradition.” Stephen Cope wrote those words in his book Yoga And the Quest for the True Self. 1999, by the way! I recommend it to anyone interested in yoga.
He also wrote, “The living truth of yoga exists only in the tension between its multifarious forms and the realities of immediate practice in the life of real human beings. As the Upanishads have it, ‘Knowledge comes alive only through practice.'”
As for me, the yoga mat is the real and also metaphorical place where we wrestle the “stinking thinking” within us, from the simplest and more common thoughts such as–I’m not good enough–to the most treacherous and dangerous–I am better than those people. Its work is to wake us up. Don’t be a good looking yogini half-asleep. The invitation is to change the world. Unity is a radical notion, however many yoga studios spring up, however many yoga pants any of us may wear, and at its best it transforms us into people committed to human liberation for all.