by J. Brown
Trolling yoga blogs and the comment threads that ensue reveals a prevailing sentiment of tough love. Sure, there are a few hold-outs from the sixties still hanging around but the new breed of yogi is way too savvy to be fooled by any fluff and seems more interested in what you can do than how what you do makes you think or behave.
A musician friend and student was telling me about his last tour. He was at a party after a show with some of the other bands that played on the bill. Apparently, a guy from another band was into Yoga and heard that my friend was also a practitioner. The conversation went something like:
“Hey, what’s up?”
“I heard you do you Yoga.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Can you do headstand to crow?”
In and of itself, two dudes hanging out at a party after a rock-n-roll show talking about Yoga is a testament to Yoga’s new status in our culture. Back in the day, I was consistently the only man in class and, if it ever came up at a party, my inclination for Yoga was usually met with little more than a blank stare. Few people, men or women, had any frame of reference for Yoga much less a knowledge of headstand to crow.
When I chose to make Yoga my life direction, it was a decidedly un-cool thing to do. In fact, Yoga represented letting go of a need for external approval or recognition in favor of a greater sense of personal well-being and fulfillment. Sometime in the last fifteen years, my decision to abandon cool kid status has backfired. Yoga is the new hip.
Yoga teachers are headlining Lollapalooza-like events and referring to variations of downdog as “rockstar pose.” There are talent agencies for yoga teachers, celebrity endorsements and reality TV shows in the works. Yoga is now an undeniable marketing demographic and has spawned a muti-billion dollar industry.
Unfortunately, what is selling yoga as cool is not really all that cool.
I suppose its understandable that the grander displays of physicality found in classical Yoga marry well with advertising exploits and western workout mentality. Certainly, yoga poses can be used to challenge people to do more than they think possible. However, suffering through rigorous, sometimes injurious, practice routines with the idea that we will potentially accomplish some unknown something at some unknown point or perpetuating a subtle form of body dysmorphia around ideas of alignment and perfection is patently not cool.
For me, the key to making my practice effective was cultivating a nurturing sentiment. Whenever I suggest the importance of a nurturing sentiment, even right now, there is a voice in the back of my head that says, “Really? A nurturing sentiment? That’s the best you can do?” Nurturing is not generally thought of as all that cool, it definitely doesn’t look as neat as a flying crow pose.
The case against nurturing always seems to get chalked up to discipline. Thus, the tough love model. Yoga requires discipline and some find this is best achieved by overbearing means. I cannot deny the proven efficiency of austere practice in imposing discipline. For those so inclined, this may be the best route to take.
However, for a whole lot of us, discipline achieved at the forceful hand of an outside suggestion is often short lived. Just as a caring parent might discipline their child in a different manner than a drill sergeant does a soldier, nurturing and discipline are not mutually exclusive.
My two year old daughter has recently begun to require some discipline. I can get her to do what I need her to do by being stern and forceful with her but it usually requires a great deal of effort, involves some considerable whining and is only so good as I am standing there and making sure it is so.
If I have my wits about me a bit more, then I can often achieve the same ends by merely setting the proper conditions and allowing enough space for her to arrive at the decision to do what I need her to do herself. Then, the next time, she often will do the right thing because she is the one who decided to make it so.
Regardless of how we choose to bring about the discipline needed to be well, most of us could probably benefit from some nurturing. If nurturing is considered to be somehow weak, naive or cheesy then I think we are really in trouble. I contend that Yoga is best when it feels unconditional and nurturing. Nurturing is what makes Yoga cool.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com.
Previous articles by J. Brown:
- Make Me One With Everything
- Yoga or Advil
- Nonviolence, Hypocrisy and Veganism
- Mind-Body Connection Optional?
Love it! As a mother, practitioner and teacher, I love the nuturing aspects of the practice…I think they are the most important. Yes, discipline plays a role, as in anything. (Just ask my eye-rolling 13 year old son, who just lost his video game system due to his lack of effort with his school work.) Without the love of self and care for one’s body, mind and spirit, we create a hollow shell that can be easily damaged,especially as the years grow on us. Somehow, I have become hip—I am a yogi and backyard chicken keeper. I don’t know how I became hip, but I would do it all the same way, even if it was all un-cool.
To be honest I’m not sure what you mean by a nurturing sentiment in yoga practice. You mean, maintaining a positive attitude? Is this with relation to teaching students? Of doing yoga by concentrating on basic moves done to perfection, rather than egotistical attempts at nailing the most difficult positions?
Personally my favorite approach to yoga is a (perhaps) militaristic drilling through the basic poses. Not that I like a mean atmosphere (I certainly don’t), I just think yoga poses are most effective when you can do them with a certain unfeeling efficiency.
Hey Jeffrey- That your favorite approach is “militaristic drilling” goes directly to my point about nurturing sentiment. It’s possible to bring people to the same precision and efficiency without being overbearing or “militaristic.” Considering that yoga is inherently based in peace (thus all the “shanti, shanti, shanti), perhaps there is another way to bring about effective practice. Also, I question whether it is wise for practice to be “unfeeling.” All the same, I appreciate you reading and responding. Cheers.
I really do understand where you are coming from. The pop-cultural aspects of asana practice hinder discussion of the deeper ideas coming from Patanjali et al. It even leaves people a little bit dismissive, thinking that they have achieved understanding when they haven’t even begun to engage.
I really don’t want to present a yogi-er than thou attitude, but I came to yoga because of a spiritual need, not a physical one. “Coolness” worries me as it draws people from motivations antithetical to mine. On the other hand, asana practice *does* make a great doorway, so who am I to say anything at all?
Nurturing is good regardless of its motivation. I suppose I’m looking towards redefining cool to be less antithetical.
I find students (including myself) respond well to lots of encouragement towards treating themselves as kindly as they would wish to treat others. Especially when they fault themselves for a lack of discipline. It’s delicate. We want discipline. We want to be able to raise some tapas and hold to the task. But students may only be slightly committed and in danger of being defeated in their practice if they feel they aren’t doing well. I’m open to being corrected on this, but I can’t find any place for competition in yoga practice. So, I think I’m in support of the idea of nurturing, though I haven’t thought of it in that term – and it might be exactly the right term. Also, the idea of cool does pop into my mind. I like it. And cool is a way to bring them in the door. For me, though, it’s playing with fire just a bit. For me, cool is quite tightly bound up with ego. I have to be careful with it.
I find that nurturing myself can be very difficult in a classroom setting. I am forgiving of myself when I don’t do an asana “right,” but some days I know I need to take things more slowly and that I should be meditating rather than doing asana. It can be so hard to adapt to my own needs in a class.
Make your teacher a partner. Tell her how you feel when you come to class feeling like the usual might not be right for you. I’ve told students to spend the entire class in savasana. You’ve noticed that it’s sometimes hard to adapt to your needs in class. That’s a valuable insight. That’s good practice.
I love a class with a teacher that has no agenda. Sadly, too many believe that they are teaching “gym” …
Not lazy, but I am naturally laid back (which is more likely to be misconstrued by a yoga teacher who teaches with an ” ’80s-era aerobics” mind-set) …
Too laid back for YOGA?
Come on, I’d taken a yoga class 20 years ago!
I do know the difference.
As teachers, they have to know that they are all potentially better than that!