by Charlotte Bell
In the past few days, I had the good fortune to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I presented both a yoga class and a musical performance there, and attended quite a few panels and workshops.
Leading panels and workshops were Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Agnostics and Atheists. The purpose of the Parliament was to bring people of all faiths—or no faith—together to talk about how to solve very real issues in our world: climate change, environmental degradation, human rights and the promotion of peace. Every single interaction I witnessed was respectful, curious and collaborative. In this divisive time, it was heartening to see people from all religions—and no religion—finding common ground, inspired to work together for a more sustainable, more inclusive future.
The scholars and religious leaders who spoke were, without a doubt, completely committed to their respective philosophies. Most had dedicated their lives to their practices and philosophies for decades. And yet, all were open to hearing how others’ philosophies and practices could augment their understanding.
As I return to my computer and to the yoga blogosphere after a few days off, I am struck by the continuing divisiveness in our community. One of the first Facebook posts I encountered described an online yoga instructor training. Traditionalists decried the training as yet another commercial cheapening of the teaching tradition. Apologists for modern yoga decried traditionalists for being “judgy” and “unyogic.” Same old, same old.
This rift has been going on for more than a decade now. Perhaps some people have switched camps, but the argument remains the same. In a way, it’s quite similar to what we hear on both sides of the mainstream religious argument: My yoga is the true one with all the answers.
This is a far cry from what I encountered at the World Parliament, whose members included people from traditional, millennia-old religions that many modern yoga practitioners might decry as too restrictive. Yet, practitioners of these traditions displayed much more respect and openness to radically different ideas than what I often read in yoga culture.
As a practitioner of more than 30 years, I’m not immune to having opinions about the direction of yoga in the past decade. I’ve often found myself lamenting the commercialization of a system I once thought could never be seduced by Madison Avenue. Of course, yoga is still yoga, but its mainstream definition has, in my opinion, become rather confused. Think chakra panties, famous teacher misconduct, and the trademarking of phrases such as “yoga butt.” And then there’s the issue of increased yoga injuries.
On the other hand, I understand that if we truly wanted to be yoga purists, we would not be living in the world, writing blogs on computers, interacting on Facebook and holding down jobs. Of course, the way we practice yoga has had to change in order to be of practical value in our Western lives.
I heartily agree with modernists who realize that yoga practice, even if it’s not completely true to its ancient roots, can be an invaluable tool for helping us negotiate our complicated lives. So how can we all get along? Here are some of my thoughts—and I’m sharing these things as a reminder to myself, too!
- Stop taking possession of yoga. Yoga’s truth doesn’t belong to anyone. The philosophy and practices of yoga are available to anyone who commits herself to practice.
- Know that every person’s yoga will be different. We all came into the world with different genetic inheritances and grew up in vastly different families, cultures and communities. We all have different needs, and our yoga practice will reflects these differences. This is why yoga was, until the 20th century, handed down one on one from teacher to student.
- Don’t get attached to your ideas about what yoga is and is not. My experience is that over 30 years of practice, my practice and ideas about practice have changed radically. My practice now looks nothing like it did when I was in my 20s and 30s. If you’re paying attention, yours probably will look different too as you age and evolve.
- Keep your beginner’s mind. As Suzuki Roshi famously wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” No matter how long you’ve practice, there will always be a vast amount more to learn. Be humble and curious.
If imams, priests, ministers, rabbis, rinpoches and roshis can come together for the common good of our world, can people who love yoga set aside our differences and come together for something bigger than touting our personal practice preferences and denigrating others?
I will continue to reflect on the grace and kindness I witnessed between representatives of traditional religions last weekend, religions that in some cases have been at war with each other for centuries. And I will continue to hope that the yoga community can grow into a similar mature and reasonable respectfulness as it ages and evolves.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.